Oil well fire
Oil well fires are oil or gas wells that have caught on fire and burn. Oil well fires can be the result of human actions, such as accidents or arson, or natural events, such as lightning. They can exist on a small scale, such as an oil field spill catching fire, or on a huge scale, as in geyser-like jets of flames from ignited high pressure wells. A frequent cause of a well fire is a high-pressure blowout during drilling operations.
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 create a shockwave that pushes the burning fuel and local atmospheric oxygen away from the well. (This is a similar principle to blowing out a candle.) The flame is removed and the fuel can continue to spill out without catching on fire.
After blowing out the fire, the wellhead must be capped to stop the flow of oil. During this time, the fuel and oxygen required to create another inferno are 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 wax-coated tools are used during the capping process. Meticulous care is used to avoid heat and sparks, or any other ignition source. Re-ignition at the wellhead may take the form of an extremely powerful explosion, possibly even worse than the original blowout.
With recent advances in technology as well as environmental concerns, many wells today are capped while they burn. High-powered water sprays and Purple K dry chemical (a potassium bicarbonate mixture) are used to extinguish the fire.
There are several techniques used to put out oil well fires, which vary by resources available and the characteristics of the fire itself.
- Dousing with copious amounts of water
- Raising the plume - placing a 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 into the producing zone to redirect some of the oil and make the fire smaller. (However, most relief wells are used to pump heavy mud and cement deep into the wild well.) The first relief wells were drilled in Texas in the mid 1930s. 
- Using a gas turbine to blast a fine mist at the fire. Water is injected into the compressor section of the turbine in large quantities. (This does not harm the turbine, and in fact this technique is also used for cleaning turbines.)
- Using dynamite to 'blow out' the fire by forcing the burning fuel and oxygen away from the fuel source. 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.
- In the 1930s mechanical jaws were developed to clamp off the pipe below the fire, but they are seldom used today. The design became the basis for a safety device used on offshore wells.
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. 
Two wells on fire, Santa Fe Springs, California, 1928
Steel cap used to cap burning oil well in Santa Fe Springs, California, 1928
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Oil well fires.|
- John Wright Company Technical Library resource on blowout control
- "Wild Oil Well Tamed by Scientific Trick" Popular Mechanics, July 1934
- "The Fire Beater," Time
- "Oil-Well Fire Squeezed Out As Jaws Close Casing" Popular Mechanics, July 1935
- 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