Oil Well Fire

Extinguishing the fires

Oil well fires are more difficult to extinguish than regular fires due to the enormous fuel supply for the fire. In fighting a fire at a wellhead, typically high explosives, such as dynamite, are used to consume all the local atmospheric oxygen and snuff the flame out. Doing so removes the oxygen necessary for the fire to burn, but the fire’s fuel, whether it be natural gas or oil, is still present which can shower down upon the working crew.

After snuffing, the wellhead must be capped to stop the flow of oil. During this time, the fuel and oxygen required to create another inferno is present in copious amounts. At this perilous stage, one small spark (perhaps from a steel or iron tool striking a stone) or other heat source might re-ignite the oil.

To prevent re-ignition, brass or bronze tools, which do not strike sparks, or paraffin coated tools are used during the capping process. Meticulous care is used to avoid heat and sparks, or any other ignition source. The explosive re-ignition of a wellhead may take the form of an extremely powerful explosion, possibly even worse than the original blowout.

Due to recent advances in technology as well as environmental concerns, many wells today are capped while they burn. The use of high-powered water sprays and Purple K dry chemical (a potassium bicarbonate mixture) are used to extinguish the wells.

There are several techniques used to put out oil well fires, which vary by resources available and the characteristics of the fire itself.

In essence the trade was started by Myron M. Kinley, who dominated the field in the early years. His lieutenant, Red Adair, went on to become the most famous of oil well firefighters.

Techniques include:

Dousing with copious amounts of water

Raising the plume- Inserting one metal casing 30 to 40 feet high over the well head (thus raising the flame above the ground). Liquid nitrogen or water is then forced in at the bottom to reduce the oxygen supply and put out the fire.

Drill relief wells to redirect the oil and make the fire smaller (and easier to extinguish with water).

Using a gas turbine to blast a fine mist at the fire. Water is injected to the compressor section of the turbine in large quantities. This does not harm the turbine. This technique is also used for cleaning turbines.

Using dynamite to ‘blow out’ the fire by blasting fuel and oxygen from the flame and consuming oxygen in the combustion. This was one of the earliest effective methods and is still widely used. The first use was by Myron Kinley’s father in California in 1913

Dry Chemical (mainly Purple K) can be used on small well fires such as those in refineries.

Special vehicles called “Athey wagons” as well as the typical bulldozer protected by corrugated steel sheeting are normally used in the process.


Oil well fires can cause the loss of millions of barrels of crude oil per day. Combined with the ecological problems caused by the large amounts of smoke and unburnt petroleum falling back to earth, oil well fires such as those seen in Kuwait can cause enormous economic losses.

Smoke from burnt crude oil contains many chemicals, including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, soot, benzopyrene, Poly aromatic hydrocarbons, and dioxins. Exposure to oil well fires is commonly cited as a cause of the Gulf War Syndrome, however, studies have indicated that the firemen who capped the wells did not report any of the symptoms suffered by the soldiers.

1904 fire at a Bibi-Eibat oil well.

Two wells on fire, Santa Fe Springs, California, 1928

Steel cap used to cap burning oil well in Santa Fe Springs, California, 1928

Famous fires

Kuwaiti oil fires

Piper Alpha, an oil rig that caught fire

Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Oil well fires


^ John Wright Company Technical Library resource on blowout control

^ “The Fire Beater,” Time

^ Putting Out an Oil Well Fire

^ Linda Snider, Oil Well Fires & Spills

^ Desk Study on the Environment in Iraq, United Nations Environment Program

^ Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses: Final Report, December 1996

See also

Red Adair, a famous oil well firefighter

Safety Boss, an oil-well-fire-fighting company

Categories: Petroleum | Petroleum production | Firefighting | Fire

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