NEAR THE KUWAIT-IRAQ BORDER -- Burning oil wells near Iraq's petroleum center Basra filled Thursday's nighttime desert sky with black smoke and flames.
A battalion commander with a U.S. Marine unit in northern Kuwait confirmed that "three oil wells have been torched."
The Arab satellite television channel Al-Arabiya reported that fires erupted in Iraq's valuable Rumeila South field 50 miles west of Basra and just north of the Kuwaiti border. That field is one of Iraq's largest, with more than 5-billion barrels in reserves.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld could not confirm whether the wells were sabotaged by Saddam Hussein's troops. Earlier, the Pentagon had confirmed that Iraq had booby-trapped wells so one person could blow them up.
"The United States and its international partners anticipated that Saddam Hussein's regime might attempt acts of sabotage against oil wells," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in Washington.
World oil markets reacted in a buying frenzy, fearing these sightings might presage the wholesale destruction of Iraq's oil industry.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries sought to calm markets, saying its members pledged to crank up output to compensate for any disruption in crude supplies from Iraq. Iraqi crude exports, totaling 2-million barrels a day, are expected to cease as the war intensifies.
A loss of oil from Iraq could squeeze supplies for importing countries, including the United States, which depends on Iraq for 2 percent of all the crude it consumes. A scorched-earth demolition of wells could also deny the U.S. and British governments an asset they hope will help pay for postwar reconstruction of Iraq.
Hussein has had plenty of time -- and experience -- to plan destruction of wells. In 1991, Iraqi troops needed just a few days and some plastic explosives to destroy more than 700 well heads and turn Kuwait's occupied oil fields into a desert inferno.
The cleanup was costly. It took Kuwait more than two years and $50-billion to restore its oil output to prewar levels.
Sabotage in Iraq could be much costlier, largely because its fields and pipelines are badly run down after a dozen years of U.N. economic sanctions. Its fields are also much farther from the sea than those in Kuwait, meaning a ready source of firefighting water might not be so easily available.
And geysers of burning crude leave lasting environmental damage. "Clearly it's going to be a question of scale, but obviously if it reaches anything the scale of Kuwait, it could be an ecological disaster," said Jay Austin, a senior attorney for the Environmental Law Institute who has studied the environmental impacts of war.
Defense Department spokeswoman Diane Perry would not comment on when work on damaged wells could begin, or how it would be carried out.
"My guess is that they'll wait at least until after gun smoke clears, if not the oil smoke," said Craig Pirrong, a professor at the University of Houston Global Energy Management Institute.
Two weeks ago, the Department of Defense hired Houston-based defense and oil field contractor Brown & Root Services to develop a plan to quickly extinguish any oil field fires and assess damage as soon as possible. The company is a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., the oil services company formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Others are preparing to help, too.
"We're fixing to be going over" said Ronnie Roles, president of operations at Cudd Pressure Control, which extinguished some of the 732 blazing wells in Kuwait.
This isn't like putting out normal fires.
While a room in a burning house can reach 600 degrees at eye level, a burning oil well can hit 3,000 degrees. That's why firefighters wear steel hard hats -- the heat will melt regular plastic.
Most firefighters attack a burning well first by spraying it with cannon-like hoses. The water cools down the area, allowing crews to remove smoldering debris with a specially designed horizontal crane.
"Ninety percent of all of those fires in Kuwait were put out with nothing but sea water, sprayed from powerful hoses at the base of the fire," said Larry H. Flak, a petroleum engineer for Boots and Coots International Well Control.
For particularly stubborn fires, crews turn to the tool of last resort: dynamite or plastic explosives.
They pack explosives in a 55-gallon drum surrounded by fire retardant chemicals, wrap the drums in insulated material and use a horizontal crane to bring the drum as close to the well head as possible.
The explosion, detonated remotely, robs the fire of oxygen as the chemicals saturate the site, helping to put out the flames.
Now, the really dangerous work begins -- wading through hellish fields of simmering oil to replace damaged well heads before they burst back into flames.
Why would anyone take on such a job?
Firefighters in Kuwait were paid $800 to $5,000 a day, depending on their experience. But they earned it.
"It is hot, dirty and dangerous work, and it's got to be in your blood, you've got to want to do it," said Michael Fields, an Oklahoman with Kuwait experience. "But we do it, because for most of us, it's an adrenaline rush."