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The Job Of A Wild Well Oilfield Fire Fighter
The job of an oilfield firefighter is far from ordinary. Wild well control is the term used in the oilfield to control an oil or gas well that has experienced either an above or below ground blowout. Blowouts don't always cause fires but they can cause the release of thousands of barrels of oil and saltwater into the environment or the release of combustible natural gas. In some areas the natural gas released contains highly poisonous H2S gas, creating even more hazards to anyone within a radius of up to several miles.
The most common image of an oil well firefighter is that of the actor John Wayne portraying legendary wild well fire fighter Red Adair in the movie Hellfighters. Red Adair began fighting oil and gas well blowouts in the 1950's when the oil drilling industry was just entering the modern age.
Having been in a bomb disposal detail in the Army in World War II, Adair had a good background in explosives. Adair discovered that you could use explosives such as dynamite, placed near the burning well head, to suffocate the fire by removing oxygen and disrupting the combustion process in the same way a birthday candle is blown out. Placing explosives near a burning well head of course is very dangerous and Red Adair developed special tractor mounted booms and devices to deploy dynamite near the well head. Bulldozers were equipped with special heat shielding and daring operators moved the explosives into position as the rest of the crew monitored the situation and operated high pressure water pumps to cool down the area. Any number of factors, including a surge of pressure or change of wind direction could have spelled disaster for the entire crew.
Because of the danger and specialized techniques involved, Red Adair was able to charge a king's ransom for a job completed. He was fond of saying "if you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur to do it."
As the oilfields of the Mideast were developed, extreme underground pressures were encountered. Red Adair's company was called on to fight massive blowouts such as one called the "Devil's Cigarette Lighter" in Algeria in 1961, which burned with a flame over four hundred feet high for years. Numerous attempts to put out the fire failed until finally Red Adair's company was able to extinguish the massive fire using over eight hundred pounds of explosives. This gained his company global attention. Adair was called on to fight fires in Kuwait after the invasion of Saddam Hussein. He finally sold his company and employees of his, "Coots" Matthews and "Boots" Hansen formed their own wild well fighting company called "Boots and Coots Wild Well Control". Boots and Coots was bought International Well Control or IWC, a company started by another group of former employees, Messer's Krause, Henry and Hatteberg forming the company of Boots & Coots IWC Inc. Adair passed away in 2004 at the age of 89.
Below is a video of the Algeria blowout on which the movie "Hellfighters" was based in part.
What Does Wild Well Control Involve?
In addition to using bulldozers and explosives to snuff out a burning well head a wild well control company may drill a relief well to divert underground pressure to where it can be safely flared. Today wild well control companies are able to use horizontal drilling or directional drilling to drill very near to the blowout and relieve much of the gas pressure. This significantly aids in surface fire fighting or capping of a non-burning well. For more on how directional drilling is done see How Oil and Gas Wells Are Drilled Horizontally . In addition to surface well control they may use a variety of techniques such as relief wells and cementing to control underground blowouts. Underground blowout happen when a highly pressurized zone is encountered and the fluid from that zone overpowers the drilling mud holding it back and blows out into a less pressured reservoir above or below. Problems such as there are usually caused by not having enough mud weight and not setting casing at a certain depth above the zone of high pressure.
What Kind Of Jobs Are There In Oil Well Firefighting and Well Control?
In the beginning of the wild well and oil well fire fighting business it was comprised of a hodgepodge of highly experienced oilfield workers, ex-military explosive experts and heavy equipment operators. Today it is similar, with most employees having at least ten years of more experience. Wild well control companies hire only the very best in their respective fields. Salaries are often commensurate with experience and very high compared to other oilfield personnel. Professional explosives experts and blasting engineers, structural engineers, petroleum engineers, safety engineers, heavy equipment operators and more make up a modern wild well control company.
For photos of oil well fires and wild well control situations see: Wild Oil Well Fire and Blowout Photos