Kuwait Oil Fires


Early in April 1991, I was selected by SafetyBoss of Red Deer, Alberta to participate in containing one of the most globally significant environmental catastrophies of all time.

Over 600 oil wells, storage tanks, and refineries were ignited by the Iraqi army as they fled Kuwait in Frebuary 1991. The fires produced large smoke plumes which had a significant environmental effect on the Persian Gulf region.


Day seemed like night when viewed from afar. Up close, the burning wells cast an eerie glow upon the oil lakes surrounding the blaze.


A single oil fire, and its hot halo several hundred meters across. Most fires produced dark soot plumes, but the hottest fires had no plume, and had core temperatures of roughly 1100 Celcius. These arose from burning methane.


In many cases, wellheads were damaged below ground level. These fires were small in size, but proved to be some of the more difficult fires to extinquish. In this photo, oil burns through the surrounding debris, which needed to be removed before the fire is put out. Often, crews would re-ignite the well site in order to burn off pools of oil which would collect in holes.


The daunting task of fighting the fires is made even more hazardous by vast quantities of unexploded bombs, land mines and discarded Iraqi ammunition. Ordinance disposal teams must detonate these explosives before machines can build roads to the fires. It is the first vital step. It is dangerous and it has to be done quickly, a difficult task given the perpetual darkness.


Typical Kuwait Fire. Hundreds of miles of "gatch" roads must be built across the oil-soaked desert to bring firefighters to the fires. "Gatch" is a clay-like substance lying beneath the sand.


New and innovative ideas are being pressed into service. Against a landscape of huge oil "lakes," what looks like a giant steel dinosaur lumbers along, efficiently extinguishing the ground fires. Canada's Safety Boss team conceived and built an innovation called "Foamy One" in Kuwait in just two weeks.




Another configuration called "Big Wind" was invented by the Hungarian team to literally blow the fires out and it works. Jet engines from MIG-21 fighter planes are mounted atop a Russian tank. Water is injected into the jet stream creating a powerful blast that works well against all but the biggest fires.

Petroleum engineers Aisa Bou-Yabes and Sara Akbar recruited a new firefighting team from their colleagues at the Kuwait Oil Company. They reveal their ties to their country and its oil fields while combating the biggest fire still burning in Kuwait. The inferno towers 250 feet (76 meters) above their heads. In the midst of the attack, a fickle wind reverses and the team immediately reacts to the emergency--pulling their people out of the advancing blaze through boiling clouds of steam. They re-group, re-plan and when conditions are right, they manage to extinguish the fire using water alone.


This task took only 10 months, instead of the predicted two to three years. The success of these Canadians has made a significant contribution to ending the ecological trauma that these oil fires represented to the environment and to rebuilding Kuwaiti oil production.The Canadian oil patch has contributed to oil exploration recovery and safety all around the world.


Kuwait Oil Fire Facts

  • Iraqi troops detonated 696 oil wells, 607 of which were left burning.
  • An estimated 5 million barrels of crude oil were consumed daily. If left to burn, the fires would have lasted 100 years.
  • More than 90 miles of existing oil pipelines were converted to move seawater from the Arabian Gulf to 312 lagoons constructed for the firefighting effort. A total of 1.2 billion gallons of water was used in the extinguishing effort.
  • Canadian firefighters extinquished an average of three oil well fires per day were extinguished, with a peak of 13 in one day.
  • Firefighters perspired a quart of water an hour when working near the blazes, which burned at up to 2,000 degrees. The primary medical complaint was blistered knees and shins from burning steam rising from scorching sand.
  • It cost $1.5 billion to put out the fires and cap the wells. Kuwait paid the bill.
  • 800x600 Hi-Res Image From Space

    Hi-Res Image from STS-37


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    Safety Boss Canada (1993) Ltd., 4657 - 62 St., Red Deer, AB, T4N 2R4, 403-342-1310