| This US Navy photo shows Bernard S. Wiess, a journalist, getting a close shot with his camera of an oil fire at the Rumaila oilfield. (AFP)
Rumaila oilfield, March 30: In the desert darkness as black as Iraqi crude, the smell of oil carries farther than the light from the fiery spouts. In daylight, the roar of the fires rises above the noise of heavy military traffic crossing the border to the east.
Daylight completes a story, too: camels by wellhead fires, US marines and firefighters from American firm Boots and Coots International Well Control.
The war in Iraq has gone beyond camels, cowboys and contracts, and, says the Central Command, is nearly at the gates of Baghdad. The battles in one of the world’s most fertile petroleum fields, though, are far from over.
The South Rumaila Oilfields were taken by the US 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in the first night of their thrust into Iraq. The oilfields were guarded by an Iraqi army battalion that fled and while retreating was suspected to have set wellheads on fire.
The US force took over the oilfields without a great fight. But this is still a battlefield which is why Texan Bud Curtis should have been an oddity here.
In the company’s regulation pink overalls and silver helmet, the dry brown of the desert marks him out from a mile. “What brought me to this job' Back home in Texas, there was a blowout when I was 12 years old or so. I wanted to put it out.”
“I’m 47,” he says. “But god is kind on oilmen, so I look younger.”
There are 190 wellheads in the South Rumaila oilfields, 290 in the north. Nine fires raged in the south — four from wellheads and five from exhausts or pipelines. The saboteurs apparently fixed charges to the valves and the spouts and detonated them by remote control. The wellhead fires are more difficult to control.
Kuwait Oil Company (KOC), Boots & Coots and Joe Bowden have been sub-contracted the jobs by the company, Haliburton. Curtis is from the Houston-based Boots & Coots. The oil-well firefighters had been camping in Kuwait with all their equipment for nearly three weeks before the war began. So far, KOC has put out one wellhead fire and Boots and Coots another.
“I can only assume that it was set on fire by the Iraqi army,” says Major Jorge Lizarralde. “We didn’t see them. There was a battle here. If not by the Iraqis, who else'” Lizarralde is from the Marines.
His job now is to safeguard the infrastructure “so that it is kept for the benefit of the Iraqi people.”
“We found charges, we have found a couple of minefields to the north and caches of rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. We’ve also found detonators and charges.”
A unit of the Marines and a battalion of the British Army’s Royal Irish now patrol the oilfields. The desert here is not as dry as in the north of Kuwait. Apart from small mounds of sand and stone, it is mostly scrubland — fodder for the one-humped camels that come to graze. Any other movement and the machine-gunner atop the military Humvee signals his officer; both scan the desert with binoculars. The fires roar.
“It could take four days to nine weeks to put out a wellhead fire,” says Curtis.
“This fire here,” and he points to the fiercest, “I would say is burning up less than 4,000 barrels a day. The magnitude of the fires is less than what we saw in Kuwait in 1991. I was there too.”
The firefighters will either stop the flow of fuel, stop oxygen flow or separate the fuel from the oxygen. At one wellhead, they were working to let off such explosions within a 50 feet radius of the fire that it would suck in all the oxygen from the air.