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Gulf war: it may take years to extinguish the hundreds of fires now burning out of control at Kuwaiti oil wells

PETER THOMPSON: Oil fire specialists say the disaster in Kuwait could hardly be worse. The American based Red Adair Company is preparing for its biggest challenge, putting out hundreds of fires which, it says, could burn for up to five years, with unknown consequences. The company has been holding discussions with the Pentagon for about six months, and now has a contract to begin the clean-up as soon as possible. Brian Krause is Red Adair's right-hand man. He told Phillip Lasker that although his team has been planning for months, the Kuwaiti disaster is much worse than expected.

BRIAN KRAUSE: What's going on over there, right now, is no big surprise. We've been gearing up for this ever since then, which is everybody's hope that the Iraqis wouldn't go to the extreme that they've gone. And from what we've been told, today, they've gone absolutely to the worst-case scenario. They've blown every one of the flowing wells that do flow, you know, under pressure, they have blown up over there.

PHILLIP LASKER: What does that mean for you?

BRIAN KRAUSE: It means, probably, looking at anywhere between three and five years to put these fires out.

PHILLIP LASKER: Will people be able to live in the area during that time?

BRIAN KRAUSE: Yes. Once Kuwait has been liberated and the US military says it's safe enough to come in, then that's when there'll be a huge wave of fire-fighting equipment and fire-fighting teams going into Kuwait to start working on a non-stop basis to try to bring all these wells under control.

PHILLIP LASKER: Is it possible, then, to put out these fires? Given that they're much more serious than you originally thought, is it possible to put out these fires without any serious damage to the environment or the region?

BRIAN KRAUSE: Well, the only damage to the environment would be the smoke damage. You are not going to have that much of a pollution damage as long as the wells are burning, because they will burn off all the pollution. But once you put the fire out, you know - we'll be prepared. We'll try to shoot the fire out and try to hopefully cap the well, repair the well-head and cap it and shut the flow off, all within the same - you know, one or two days. That minimises the pollution problem.

PHILLIP LASKER: But it must be dangerous for the allied forces and the armies involved.

BRIAN KRAUSE: Yes. The best thing about these fires is there's no drilling rigs on them. When you shoot the well-head off, the fire just goes straight up in the air. It's burning like a big, huge candle - the flame is going 500 or 600 feet in the air. So it's only hot right around the vicinity, but you can't get up next to it. That's another big concern of ours, is the mines and the booby traps he's laid around these wells. The military is not going to be able to get up in there and remove those because of the heat, so that's another step that's going to take us a lot longer, trying to cool that area and sweep for mines and make sure that the wells aren't booby trapped.

The biggest draw-back to this whole thing is going to be the amount of water we need at each one of these fires, and the only way to get that water is to lay pipelines to the Gulf and drill water-wells to get it, so you're looking at months on just getting water to where we need it be. And I would think if war ended tomorrow, you're looking at five to six months before we can even start working on the first fire.

PHILLIP LASKER: But yet you say you don't expect any serious environmental damage, even though it's going to take months to even begin putting the fire out, and then years before the fires are extinguished.

BRIAN KRAUSE: There will be serious damage to the reserves of oil that they have there. I mean, you'll never get that back. It's just going to go up in smoke and you'll never have it back again. But as far as the clouds and all that - I mean, who knows? The world's never seen 500 oil wells being burned in one place at one time. I don't think anybody has any idea what's going to happen.

PETER THOMPSON: Brian Krause from the Red Adair Company.