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Controlling Oil Well Fires in Iraq

The experience of the massive oil fires in Kuwait during the Gulf War led to great concern that the same could happen in Iraq. The southern oil fields in Iraq have been secured with just a few fires, but the northern oil fields are still held by Iraqi forces.

The two final burning oil wells in Iraq’s southern Rumaila oil field should be under control within days. The Rumaila field had nine wells set on fire in apparent sabotage by Iraqi troops. The field has 800 wellheads and a production capacity of 1.8 million barrels per day.

Coalition forces moved quickly at the beginning of the war to seize the oil field and prevent massive well head destruction of the kind Kuwait’s oil fields suffered more than a decade ago, when more than 600 wells were set ablaze by retreating Iraqi troops.

U.S. oil service workers have been brought in to extinguish the well fires and feel the environment has been made safe enough for them to do their work, according to oil worker Larry Flak.

“We don’t feel any risk, we feel like we’re being well-protected here or we wouldn’t be here. The work is dangerous enough.”

The damage caused by the massive oil well fires of the Gulf War more than a decade ago led to renewed worries of possible environmental and health damage this time if the Iraqi oil fields were set on fire. Putting out these fires is a dangerous challenge according to Steve Winters who trains putting out simulated oil well fires in the U.S.

”You’ve got to respect what you’re doing too, you just can’t go waltzing up there and get right in the middle of things; there are certain steps you have to go through before you can start approaching a well.”

The well fires are usually put out with water or with explosions that temporarily take away the oxygen needed for the fire to burn. Coalition forces have pledged to protect the oil fields as an asset belonging to the Iraqi people. The security of the northern Kirkuk oil field, now held by Iraqi troops, is still in question.