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Water, equipment woes delay work at burning oil wells

[AP photo]
A U.S. soldier looks through a pair of binoculars Sunday as a fire in the Rumeila oil field burns in the background in southern of Iraq.
©Associated Press
April 1, 2003

A shortage of water and an equipment failure prevented firefighters on Monday from quenching the last fires raging at sabotaged oil wells in one of Iraq's biggest oil fields.

American and Kuwaiti firefighters working in Iraq's Rumeila South field still hope to put out the remaining two fires within a week, but the setbacks could delay their timetable.

"If I don't get more than 45 minutes of water, we'll be here till the next war," said Brian Krause, president of Boots & Coots International Well Control.

The two teams said they saved the toughest fires for last. The Americans, who extinguished their first fire Saturday, struggled this time with flames shooting 150 feet in the air.

"It's the biggest one out there and by far the hottest . . . . We can take a lot of heat, but it was really at the edge of unbearable," said Krause, audibly weary as he spoke by telephone from Kuwait City.

The number of fires burning at oil wells in Rumeila South has dwindled from seven since U.S. and British forces began their attack on Iraq. The allies moved quickly to secure the field against widespread sabotage, as Iraq's oil is expected to be a major source of fundsneeded for the country's postwar reconstruction. Rumeila South produced at least 500,000 barrels of crude a day before the war.

Boots & Coots of Houston is the subcontractor responsible for putting out oil well fires in the parts of Iraq controlled by U.S. and British forces. A team of volunteer firefighters from the state-run Kuwait Oil Co. is working along with the Americans.

The Boots & Coots team ran out of water Monday after spraying a fire for just 45 minutes, exhausting the 10 water tanks near a well head just across the Kuwait-Iraq border.

To increase their water supply, Krause said his men may have to dig a pit in the desert, line it with plastic sheeting and fill it with water piped from a pumping station in Kuwait. The lagoon could be 8 feet deep and measure 250 feet on each side.

"That's what we did in Kuwait," said Krause, who helped tackle burning oil wells in Kuwait after retreating Iraqi troops blew them up in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Iraqis appeared to have set off an explosion 6 feet underground at the well head, effectively wrecking it.

"I was hoping we'd be able to have a quick fix, but when I saw the damage today, it's not going to be quick," Krause said. The Kuwaiti team operating nearby tried to mount a section of so-called chimney pipe on top of a burning gusher of crude, in an effort to redirect the flames straight up and make them easier to extinguish. However, the pipe failed.

"We'll give it another shot tomorrow," said Aisa Bouyabes, senior firefighter for the Kuwait Oil Co. He estimated the flames to be at least 75 feet high.

Bouyabes and his men succeeded last week in snuffing out the first fire at a well in Rumeila South.

Once the last fires are beaten, U.S. firefighters plan to replace at least six damaged well heads in the field. Then they expect to move on to other oil fields, including some near Basra, Iraq's No. 2 city, and the northern oil center of Kirkuk -- once allied troops secure both areas.

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