The potential for an explosion exists every time an oil and gas well is drilled. A specialized group of oil field workers, sometimes called ‘hellfighters,’ respond to and control well explosions, like the one in Quinton, Oklahoma in January. The Journal Record’s Sarah Terry-Cobo reports it’s a job that requires a high degree of training, but some professionals are concerned about loss of experience in the field.
Jacob McCleland: You're listening to the Business Intelligence Report a weekly conversation about business news in Oklahoma. I'm Jacob McCleland and I'm joined by Sarah Terry-Cobo. She's the senior reporter for the Journal Record newspaper. Sarah thank you for talking with us.
Terry-Cobo: Hi Jacob. It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
McCleland: Well I want to talk with you today about a story that you wrote in The Journal Record about "hellfighters," of the firefighters who were trained to put out oil well fires. And this job was really important following the deadly explosion in Quinton in January. It seems like a really daunting thing to do. What kind of training does somebody need for this type of job?
Terry-Cobo: Well they're petroleum engineers first and foremost and they need at least a decade of experience and solid track record of drilling oil and gas wells. And then after someone has demonstrated that experience then they spend time repairing, cleaning, maintaining that crucial piece of equipment that's not on fire. So the machine of course is called the blowout preventer. And after you have repaired those damaged blowout preventers, taken time and classes learning all the techniques, then basically you're ready for an apprenticeship. That person will respond with another experienced group of staff just watching and observing as they put out the wellfire. And then after a period of apprenticeship they're ready to respond.
McCleland: Well let's talk about the original hellfighter, Red Adair. Who was he?
Terry-Cobo: Well way back in 1946 he started working with the first couple of people who ever put out an oil well fire. And a little bit more than a decade later he started his own company and was joined by a guy named "Boots" Hansen and "Coots" Matthews. They were part of a crew that put out a really infamous wildfire in Algeria in the 1960s. So after that, Red Adair was featured in Life magazine and that branded him as a hero. And the Hellfighters movie, of course, John Wayne portrayed him in that movie.
McCleland: How has this profession changed since Red Adair's time?
Terry-Cobo: Well when they started they actually used dynamite. You blow up dynamite inside the wellbore and it starves the fire of oxygen. They didn't really have specialized equipment back thens so they modified bulldozers and other heavy machinery. And now they have custom machinery built to help control and direct the heat away from the fire, to drag damaged parts away from the fire, protect workers from the flames. Think of it like a civil engineering project. Lots of very precise calculations go into stopping the fire and then determining if the well can be repaired. If it's too damaged, it has to be cemented off and closed.
McCleland: Well this kind of leads me to the next question is I mean how does somebody go about putting out a well fire?
Terry-Cobo: It's intense. So I had a chance to talk to the lead engineer for Boots and Coots. Those were the folks that responded to the Quinton well fire. And that engineer says you have to follow the chain of command that's already established on site because by the time they get there, there's already first responders there. So follow the chain of the command. Then they take a crane and they drag away all that damaged metal and equipment. Then they take that special machine, it's called an Athie wagon. They put a big metal cylinder over the blowout preventer. That cylinder will direct the heat and the flames upward like a chimney. And then they use cutting tools to cut off the wellhead and they use that Athie wagon to drag it away. Then they pump really dense fluid down the wellbore to put out the fire. That's where the engineering comes in, too. They use calculations to figure out how dense the mud must be to overcome the pressure and put out the flames.
McCleland: Why are Hellfighters now worried about turnover in the in the oil and gas industry?
Terry-Cobo: Well it's a similar issue that has faced the industry at large in the last decade really. So there was a gap in the mid 80s and 90s where people didn't go to school for that because the bust was so bad. So now you have this wave of baby boomers who are either retiring who have been laid off in the most recent bust and haven't returned. They haven't returned to the oil industry so there is an experience gap there.
McCleland: How can well fires be prevented in the first place?
Terry-Cobo: Right. And that's kind of the most crucial thing there and that's what boots includes wants to get to. It's really kind of mind-boggling to think that there is potential for a fire every time workers take those long strings of pipe out of the hole to change the drill bit. That's every time a wells drilled, when they pull out those pipes, gas can bubble up to the surface. So the industry has procedures in place to check different levels of fluids coming out of the hole what the pressure is to ensure there isn't a gas bubble lurking near the surface. So it's lots of close attention and lots of experience necessary.
McCleland: Sarah Terry-Cobo is the Journal Record senior reporter. Sarah thank you so much for your time.
Terry-Cobo: Absolutely it's great to be here, Jacob.
McCleland: KGOU and the Journal Record collaborate each week on The Business Intelligence Report. You can find this conversation at kgou.org and you can follow us on social media. We're on Facebook and Twitter at @journalrecord and @kgounews.
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