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Assam Fire: How Can an Oil Well Fire Be Stopped & Why It is So Tough

Assam Fire: How Can an Oil Well Fire Be Stopped & Why It is So Tough

After spewing gas for the last 13 days, the #Baghjan oil field finally caught fire on Tuesday — a massive blaze that can be seen from 30 kms away. #AssamFire

The natural gas well of Oil India Limited (OIL) in Baghjan of Assam’s Tinsukia district caught a massive fire – around 13 days after a blowout on 27 May. A blowout is a release of crude oil or natural gas from an oil or gas well after the failure of pressure control systems. A spark during a blowout may cause a catastrophic disaster.

At present, the fire has claimed two lives – both the deceased were firefighters at the Baghjan reserve. Reportedly, a fireman was also injured at the site. The administration had evacuated around 650 families of the village two weeks ago when the accidental blowout happened due to possible machinery failure. This timely intervention helped contain casualty damage. However, the wildlife and plants at the adjacent Dibru-Saikhowa National Park faced a grave threat from the massive fire. 

The fire broke out at around 1:40 PM on Tuesday and has now been controlled to some extent, thanks to the timely intervention by the 12th Batallion of National Disaster Management Force (NDRF) and Indian Air Force (IAF). 

A three-member team from the Singapore-based disaster management firm Alert Disaster Control also reached the site on Monday and are now taking stock of the situation. The main oil rig is still ablaze, but the fire in the surroundings has been controlled, as per the latest reports. 

Actions taken by OIL team to Control the Blowout

OIL released an official statement on 4 June detailing the actions taken to mitigate the blowout in the oil rig. 

  • The team pumped water to the well through the casing valve. 
  • The OIL and ONGC CMT teams tested the hydraulically-driven mechanical transporter and others for controlling the well. 
  • Removal of well site debris to facilitate the control of natural gas release.
  • Digging of a water reservoir near the well site and installation of several pumps of 2500 gallons capacity to supply sufficient quantities of water to the site. 
  • Continuous water-jacketing of the well by the OIL fire service and local forces since 27 May. 
  • Constant monitoring of the presence of gas, and air and water quality at strategic points, and collecting layers of condensate deposited near the site. 
The fire spread out over a large area of forests

Following the fire breakout, OIL team, along with the Alert safety experts Michael Ernest Allcorn, Craig Neil Duncan, and Edward Harris MacLeod, reached the site and undertook emergency precautionary measures. 

“The experts from Alert . . . are confident of controlling the well at the earliest with necessary support from OIL . . . They emphasised that the safety of the local people in the area and the technical team working at the well site will be their prime concern while carrying out the operations,” – stated the latest press release by OIL. 

An official spokesperson from OIL explained the measures being taken to extinguish the raging fire. While clearing the site of operation is in motion, a water umbrella was created for well control operation. He also added that an NDRF team is assisting the relief operations. 

Global Experts Explain How to Control Fire in Oil Wells

When a series of about 30 oil wells in southern Iraq caught fire simultaneously during the 2003 Iraq War, international safety expert Robert Ebel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Mark Badick of Safety Boss Inc had released an explainer stating the four most important steps to control an oil well fire. 

  • Clearing debris from the well

To aid the firefighters access the flames, a curtain of water is sprayed at first targeting the blaze. Thereafter, heavy machinery is deployed to remove all obstructions.

There are several stages involved in the removal of this debris. Removing a fence may take half an hour at most while removing a burning wellhead, which houses the valves controlling the oil flow might require days. 

  • Make way for the flow of oil to shoot straight up into the air

After the removal of obstructions, the trapped oil is supposed to rise straight up into the air like a geyser. This phenomenon not only helps in preventing oil pooling on the ground and surroundings, but it also helps the firefighters to access the flames from all sides. Thus, it can help prevent oil spillage and massive fire breakout affecting the local community settlements, if any.  

Forest burnt down in the fire
  • Extinguish the fire and cool the surroundings 

Firefighters generally attack oil flames with 3000-pound extinguishers, which spray dry potassium bicarbonate powder into the flame at the rate of 200 pounds per second. Then, the fire is put out finally using a steady stream of water coupled with dry chemical extinguishers. 

Oil pooled on the ground, if any, will pose hazardous risk to any life around. Firefighters should spray it with foam that helps break the oil down to the molecular level. 

Once the fire has been doused, the surrounding areas are sprayed with water, while keeping in mind to carefully avoid the still-flowing oil geyser and it may reignite the blaze on the ground by sparks falling in from the rising flame. 

  • Capping the well

Once the surrounding area has cooled down, firefighters should cap the well to shut off the flow. 

Timely Intervention Averted Major Chances of Casualty

Speaking to The Better India, Indian Air Force Wing Commander Ratnakar Singh from Shillong said, “Yesterday, we deployed three fire extinguishers to the site in Baghjan, Assam, which has helped in controlling the fire. From ground reports that I have heard, the situation is still pretty bad.” 

OIL firefighters trying to control the fire

NDRF 12th Batallion control room informs TBI, “We have recovered the bodies of two missing OIL firefighters Tikheswar Gohain and Durlav Gogoi from the water reservoir created there. They had probably drowned while trying to extinguish the fire. Thanks to the timely evacuation of locals at the time of the blowout, a further major disaster could be avoided.”

Local journalist Santanu Konwar who had been covering the news about the fire since the beginning, informs, “The rig is still ablaze, but the fire in the surrounding areas has been doused. It has almost been around 60 to 70 hours that the emergency fire management operations are on. 

Locals of the area, however, are protesting against the destruction of biodiversity and the death of countless wildlife in the fire. Reportedly, the Baghjan oil well is under the ire of activists due to the massive disaster causing irreparable loss to the local environment.

All Image Credits: Santanu Konwar 

(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)

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