8 steps to handling oil well fires

Oil and gas exploration is growing faster than ever and fire departments will need to be more prepared than ever for tragedy

Anyone driving through oil- or gas-rich areas can attest to the fact that drilling rigs are more rapidly covering the landscape. That the government has pushed for energy independence has loosened local permission to allow for an increase in drilling in local areas. 

In the county where I work, approximately 2,100 permits have been filed for 2013 and there is no end in sight. The United States is rapidly becoming a significant producer of both oil and gas. 

As reported by CBS News Money Watch and confirmed by November's IEA report: "U.S. oil output is surging so fast that the U.S. could soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest producer. Driven by high prices and new drilling methods, U.S. production of crude and other liquid hydrocarbons is on track to rise 7 percent this year to an average of 10.9 million barrels per day. This will be the fourth straight year of crude increases and the biggest single-year gain since 1951."

Some of this increase is due to a technique called Fracking. Fracking is a process to increase fissure size that frees oil and gas unreachable by traditional drilling methods.

A mixed bag
For the fire service, the increase in oil and gas wells is a mixed bag. While some departments are the recipient of significant taxes from the exploration companies, they are also faced with an increase in the risk to the district through the hazards that are a part of the extraction process. 

Well fires can cause damage to the immediate area through the fire engulfing the well head and possibly environmental impacts that initial first responders have the responsibility to mitigate as much as possible. Collateral damage can consist of well rigs, storage batteries, piping, local structures, forestation, wildlife and fragile economies within the damage zone caused by the heat of a fire and the impacts of run-off from firefighting efforts.

As the fire service is generally one of the first calls made by witnesses, it is becoming more necessary that fire departments are capable of mitigating a well leak and fire. Controlling a well fire generally follows a standard process to cap the leak. To stop that leak, initial crews must take these eight preliminary actions.

1. Evacuate all personnel. Rescuing personnel still inside the hot zone must be discouraged. While the urge to rescue victims is strong in firefighters, the temperatures of oil well fires are significant. When an oil fire rages, temperatures around the well can reach up to 3,000 degrees F.

These fires burn so hot that dashboards in cars 500 feet from the flame source can melt. Evacuating civilians from 1 to 3 miles may be required based on their proximity.

2. Secure location. Isolate and deny entry just like any other hazardous materials event. The Emergency Response guide, number 115 for large flammable gas leaks recommends a half-mile evacuation zone. This is a great starting point for an initial hot-zone border.

3. Establish safety zones. Half of a mile for a large flammable gas fire is a great start. However, some wells have H2S (hydrogen sulfide) mixed with the primary product. H2S is a toxic gas that is heavier than air and will travel along the ground.

Hydrogen sulfide is both an irritant and a chemical asphyxiant with effects on both oxygen utilization and the central nervous system. Accompany any access towards a well fire with an atmospheric monitor. Minimum safety zones in a well fire with H2S should be 1 mile.

4. Initiate fire watch. Post a lookout at the edge of the hot zone to monitor the status of a well leak. A hot well fire that suddenly goes out and goes quiet is a significant sign of trouble; this could be caused by crusting over. 

This generally means that the well has created a dome and is building up subsurface pressure towards an eruption. In addition, the fire watch should communicate any spot fires and their movement to assist with minimizing collateral damage to other structures.

5. Implement emergency response plan. By law, every well site, whether completed or still being drilled, must post emergency contact information. Someone must be reachable 24 hours a day. 

If the well is being drilled, there will generally be a foreman on site who will initiate this emergency response plan. A finished well generally is supervised. This individual is usually the energy company's operator, who will have the copy of the emergency response plan.

This plan will have contact information for their preferred well fire control company. They will begin the process of obtaining resources for the mitigation of this event. Establish a unified command to ensure that local fire service input is married to the company capabilities of accessing resources required to complete the safe conclusion of the event.

6. Identify on-site hazardous materials. The fire department may be asked to initially assist with identifying on-site hazardous materials. The predominant chemicals being searched for are flammable gases and hydrogen sulfide. 

However, don't get tunnel vision; these wells can contain other carcinogenic and toxic chemicals such as benzene. Monitor for a large number of chemicals to be safe.

7. Monitor well condition. Like the fire watch, observation of the well condition is critical. Watch for crust over and for the rapid increase in fire flow indicating an increase in well instability. When watching for a fire that rapidly increases in volume, be prepared to adjust the hot zone borders.

8. Implement pollution-control measures. Diking, damming, diverting and draining are examples of actions that may be required to minimize pollution damage. This includes the ability to control the large volumes of water from suppression efforts. Hydrocarbon pads (pigs) are extremely useful for skimming oil from protection water.

These are tactics that can be achieved by the local and county emergency service providers. The actual ability to control well fires will be completed by the provider listed in the operator's emergency response plan. Do not put the fire out. A fire that is burning off the flammable and combustible products is not generally creating significant collateral damage.

Capping the well
Prior to the start of a capping operation, the well control company will ask the operator to collect a large volume of water to assist with the process. I have heard of one well-control company that requires 1 million gallons on site prior to beginning the process to cap the well. 

To cap a well, specialists must remove the damaged equipment that surrounds the burning wellhead, using bulldozers and special vehicles called Athey wagons. Removing the debris allows the product flow and fire to shoot straight up in the air as opposed to spraying in every direction.

It also allows the well-control company to approach and work on the burning well in a safe area without collapse. This allows firefighters to inspect the well closely and determine the best course of action.

Normally, the flow is left burning to minimize ground pollution and burn off any poisonous gases. The old days of using explosives to snuff out the fire are generally gone. 

If the wellhead is damaged, a special high-pressure hydraulic cutter is used to remove part or all of it. Then a long tube is placed over the wellhead to direct the flames high enough to allow specialists to more closely inspect the remaining wellhead.

Firefighters use the Athey wagon to place a foundation around the existing drill casing for the addition of a control assembly. The capping assembly consisting of several valves is attached to a long tube on the salvaged wellhead.

At this point, the valves can be closed to stop the oil flow and extinguish the fire. Once the fire is extinguished, the surrounding area is quickly flushed with water to prevent the hot sand from re-igniting the lingering vapors.

In addition, remember that this is not a freebie event. Keep track of resources, apparatus and personnel required during the course of this event to ensure the costs are covered by the operator and their energy company.

The timeline for isolating the area, evacuations, well extinguishment and repairs and to complete any pollution mitigation can vary between 4 minutes to 3 to 4 months. The underlying point is that during an event of this magnitude, any leak should be approached in conjunction with the well company's operator to ensure proper safety and knowledge are combined to conclude this event in a safe manner. 

Understand that this type of event will take patience and time. Use that time wisely to monitor your people, your resources, the assistance being received and ensure everyone goes home at the close of the scenario.  

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