TALLIL AIRFIELD, Southern Iraq – Three fires were still burning Thursday at wells in a strategic Iraqi oil field, according to the senior American firefighter whose men spent most of the day gathering water.
The firefighters couldn't see the damaged well head amid the 100-foot-high flames, but they hoped to begin dousing the blaze by Friday afternoon, said Brian Krause, president of Boots & Coots International Well Control.
Houston-based Boots & Coots is the subcontractor responsible for quenching fires at Iraqi oil wells and other facilities sabotaged by retreating Iraqi fighters. Krause's team and Kuwaiti squads are working in the Rumeila South oil field about two miles inside Iraq from neighboring Kuwait.
Rumeila South is one of Iraq's biggest oil fields. U.S. and British military planners made a priority of securing it before Iraqis could cause widespread damage by blowing up the hundreds of wells there.
In the first Gulf War, Iraqi forces damaged or destroyed more than 700 oil wells in Kuwait before they retreated from the emirate, causing an environmental and economic disaster.
Now, some analysts say crude exports from southern Iraq could resume within weeks, because U.S. and British forces have captured intact Iraq's main southern pipelines and its Persian Gulf export terminal of Mina al-Bakr.
Krause's 10-man team positioned 10 water tanks and other equipment in the desert close to "a ground-swirling fire" that was 100 feet wide and tall.
"We just started getting water at the end of the day. It's so hard to get water here," he said by phone from Kuwait City.
The number of fires in Rumeila South has dwindled from seven over the weekend to three. At least two had been flares of burning natural gas that went out when firefighters cut off the gas flowing to them, Krause said.
The Americans and Kuwaitis might be able to snuff out the remaining three fires within a week. After that, Krause said, "We'll probably stand by to some extent. There's a lot of war left."