Monday, October 11, 2010

Kuwaiti Oil Fires

Kuwaiti Oil Fires block out the sun
In 1991 I sat with my father watching news clips of the Kuwaiti oil fires started by the Iraqi military forces as a final act of defiance against UN coalition forces as they retreated from Kuwait after the Persian Gulf War.  I was just a kid so I didn't really know what it all meant but I knew it was serious by the look on my fathers face even though I did not understand why at the time.  The world was changing drastically around this point.  The Cold War had just ended, the USSR was in the process of dissolution and the Berlin Wall had just come down a year earlier.  Apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa while the Yugoslav Wars were about to begin.  

Over 500 oil wells in Kuwait's Burgan oil field (which was the 2nd largest oil field in the world) were set on fire by Iraqi troops under Saddam's scorched earth policy.  These fires could have burned for over 100 years if humans had not intervened.  Even with human intervention it was initially estimated that the fires would still take 5-10 years to put out.  However, professional oil firefighting units from a multitude of different countries came together as a team to help Kuwait and showed us the compassionate, innovative and resilient side of human nature.  These specialized firefighting units were able to put out the fires in 9 months, 4 years behind initial estimates, which was an amazing feat accomplished because the people of this planet were able to put aside their differences and work as a single cohesive unit with a shared goal. 

Aerial view of well fires taken by fleeing Iraqi Troops

In order to get to the wells the surrounding desert first had to be cleared of mines and new roads had to be made around the newly formed lakes of oil.  The many pipes that led away from the oil wells eventually reached the ocean.  Saddam had initially planned to pump the oil to the coastline and light a huge line of fire preventing the coalition troops from landing.  In a reverse case the firefighters used the pipes to instead pump water from the ocean into the desert around the oil wells so it could be used to put out the fires.  The ground had to be initially cooled so the firefighters could get close enough to the well to work.  Many different techniques where employed to put out the fires as each well fire was unique and responded differently.  A very innovative technique by the specialized team from Hungary involved pumping water through twin turbo-jet engines from Mig-21 jet fighters mounted on old tanks in order to put out the fires.   

C4 was used to try and snuff out the fires.  It was quite effective as the explosives would use up the surrounding atmospheric oxygen in the explosion causing the flame to be extinguished.  If the well fire was really bad they would use a massive Venturi tube to help put out the fire.  It concentrated where the fire could go and directed it higher up.  Firefighters were then able to either bend the Venturi tube a certain way as to cut off the oxygen supply or they were able to shoot water or liquid nitrogen at the base and top of the tube to try to snuff out the fire.  Once the fires were out the high pressure oil would still come out of the damaged well.  Capping stacks would be added on to the new wellheads in order to regain control of the flow of oil out of the well.

 Mummified bird, in the hard top layer of an oil lake. 
The Kuwaiti oil fires are an economic and environmental disaster of monumental proportions.  It was not just a problem for the people of Kuwait, but a problem for the people of this entire planet.  Had these fires been able to burn unaffected for over a 100 years or even for 5 or 10 years every single human around the world would have felt its effects, but thankfully the fires were put out before long term atmospheric effects could set in.  However, the oil fires had a devastating effect on the local environment.  Sulphur dioxide, soot, carbon dioxide, unburned hydrocarbons, and heavy metals were a few things that polluted the surrounding environment.  Desert oases were now under lakes of oil, while birds dropped from the sky.  The smoke coloured the sky black as 75-80% of the sun's radiation was initially absorbed by this smoke.  However, there is hope for recovery as vegetation started to recover after a few years and over time the oil will eventually sink below the sand, although the effect of this on groundwater is unknown.

On one end of the spectrum humans are capable of being such terrible, selfish creatures while on the other end we are capable of such marvellous, innovative and compassionate things.  Hopefully one day we can learn from our mistakes instead of repeating them and not give in to our, at times, overly selfish nature.  

Our Pale Blue Dot.

As a side note, here is a little info on oil:

Black gold, or Crude Oil, is hydrophobic (water loving) but soluble in organic solvents.  It has a high carbon and hydrogen content and is a nonpolar substance.  Crude oil essentially started as a mass of dead animals and plants.  This organic matter was usually zooplankton, cyanobacteria, freshwater algae and land plant resin.  Over time this organic matter was heated to produce something called kerogen.  Once this kerogen is heated to the point where it reaches the "oil window" (60-120 degrees Celsius) it is then transformed into petroleum.  The crude oil eventually migrates from its source rock into a more porous and permeable reservoir rock where humans then extract it from.

Also, Here is an IMAX Original Documentary called Fires of Kuwait(35 minutes):


  1. Absolutely excellent post. Red Adair was a hero.

  2. Exceptional. I now have an even greater dislike of saddam, and a greater appriciation of what a global community can do when they work together.