A Moment of Science

Putting Out an Oil Well Fire

When fighting in Iraq, American soldiers encountered numerous oil well fires. Learn how specialized fire fighters put out the fires on this Moment of Science.

Despite some sporadically heavy fighting on their way towards Baghdad, allied forces met little resistance during the war in Iraq. They did, however, encounter several oil well fires, which were meant to provide confusion, smoke, and ground pollution to slow the invading army. More importantly, the fires prevented the invading army from claiming the wells. Specially equipped fire fighting companies were hired to extinguish the wells.

To cap a well, specialists must remove all the damaged equipment around the exploded wellhead, using bulldozers and special vehicles called Athey wagons to clear the area. Removing the debris allows the oil flow and fire to shoot straight up in the air as opposed to spraying in different directions. This allows firefighters to inspect the well closely and determine the best course of action.

Normally, the flow is left burning to minimize ground pollution and burn off any poisonous gases. Meanwhile, the firefighters begin to cap the well. If the wellhead is damaged, a special cutter is used to remove part of it. Then a long flow tube is placed over the wellhead to direct the flames high enough into the air to allow specialists to more closely inspect the remaining wellhead.

Using the wagon, firefighters then place a capping assembly consisting of several valves attached to a long tube on the salvaged wellhead. At this point, the valves can be closed to stop the oil flow and extinguish the fire. Once the fire is extinguished, the surrounding area is quickly flushed with water to prevent the hot sand from re-igniting the lingering vapors. Then, firefighters move on to the next well and start to process again.

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