Low Key Well-Fire Crew Battles 'a Big One'


Dressed in a fire-red jumpsuit, shielding his eyes from the ferocious heat, James Tuppen inches toward a yawning chasm in a Kern County farm field that spits an unending fury of evil-looking flames--as though it were the gateway to hell itself.

The 41-year-old Tuppen's work is so specialized that there are only a handful of people worldwide qualified to walk in his heat-insulated shoes. He's an oil-well firefighter who has survived 400 well disasters and battled the blazing oil fields of Kuwait after the Persian Gulf War.

Like many characters who have long been drawn to this peril-filled work, Tuppen is quiet, boyish-looking, folksy-talking.

Still, he's got the fire in his eyes.

Tuppen's five-man crew was brought in from Texas to extinguish what officials call one of the biggest natural gas fires in California history. The week-old blaze, which continues to spit a steady stream of 200-foot-high flames visible for 20 miles, could take months to extinguish. While such fires are not uncommon in oil country, officials say blazes of this magnitude--that burn so intensely--occur only several times a decade.

"This," Tuppen said Saturday in a slow drawl, "is a big one."

The well, located 45 miles northwest of Bakersfield, within view of Interstate 5, burst into a spectacular fireball last Monday. Officials say 17 workers had fled moments before a blowout preventer failed at the well--which, at more than 3 1/2 miles in depth, is by far the deepest in California.

Within hours, well operators flew in the crew from the Houston-based Boots & Coots International Well Control, one of only three oil-well firefighting companies in the country. The firm's roots date to 1959 and the colorful oil-well firefighter Red Adair.

Before deciding how to quell the fire, Tuppen's crew has worked to clear away drilling machinery clustered around the well mouth. Shortly after erupting, the flames melted the base of the well's 140-foot-high rig, which toppled to the ground.

The work is complicated by the crew's proximity to the unpredictable fire, which--fueled by a seemingly unending supply of natural gas--burns night and day like nature's own acetylene torch.

The fire scene is otherworldly: Near dusk, the flames cast an eerie glow on workers who scurry around a makeshift work site 100 yards from the fire. Escaping natural gas causes the mouth of the well to continually roar like a jet engine.

Tuppen and his crew, who dress in flame-retardant jumpsuits, are hosed down with water before they creep toward the fire. Often facing backward, they walk behind huge bulldozers equipped with special fireproof housing that workers using blow torches erect on the scene.

They work on a buddy system near flames that reach 3,800 degrees--hot enough to crystallize the surrounding sand into glass.

The crew works quickly, able to remain near the fire for only minutes at a time. Then, suffering from exhaustion and dehydration, they must retreat to rest and be wet down for another assault.

"Being that close to such heat irritates the skin," said Tuppen, who has been fighting well fires since 1983. "I don't shave when I'm battling a blaze like this. The last thing I need is razor burn."

Like other oil-well firefighters, Tuppen came to the business young, an 18-year-old who went to work for Red Adair--now 86 and retired--who made a name for himself fighting oil fires nearly a half-century ago.

"Red had a saying that he liked to hire his firefighters young and dumb, so they had no preconceived prejudices about the job," said Boots & Coots president Brian Krause, who has fought well fires for 25 years. "A lot of guys like Jim Tuppen and myself fit that mold."

Some well fires take on mythical proportions, like the 1962 Middle East well fire that was spotted by astronaut John Glenn during his first revolution of the earth.

"He looked out the window and described the fire from space," Krause said. "He said the flames could light the devil's cigarette. Ever since then, that fire's been known as the Devil's Cigarette Lighter."

The job of the oil-well firefighter was romanticized by Hollywood in 1969 when John Wayne played Red Adair in "The Hellfighters." Krause said a new high-tech version of the film is in the works.

The sense of danger and adventure keeps the young recruits coming.

"It's a tremendous sense of accomplishment when everybody is looking dumbfounded at a fire, saying 'How the hell are we gonna get this handled?' And then you go about the job methodically and get that well fire capped."

Sometimes, firefighters even use dynamite blasts to get the job done.

"Let me tell you," Krause said, "when you're backing . . . dynamite over a well, there's no other greater adrenaline rush in the world."

Battling disasters like the Lost Hills blaze doesn't come cheaply: Boots & Coots charges an estimated $75,000 a day.

With only a brief respite for lunch, Tuppen's crew works from dawn until dusk, when it becomes too dangerous to approach the flames. Retiring to nearby trailers, they strategize with worried-looking well operators like Aidan Walsh, president of Bellevue Resources Inc. of Calgary, Alberta, the well's main operator, who flew in to supervise the effort.

Finally, weary crew members retire to a motel near an I-5 truck stop a few miles down the road. Come the first light of dawn, they know the fire will still be there, still going strong, still waiting for them.

The blazes have taken Tuppen around the world, from the American West to Third World countries in the grips of violent revolution.

In Kuwait, members of Boots & Coots, named after two legendary firefighters who once worked for Adair, fought 128 wells in all. "They gave us all the good ones," he said with a cynical laugh. "The ones located in the mine fields. The poison gas wells."

He has survived close calls such as the Louisiana well fire that exploded moments after his crew broke for lunch. He has seen colleagues die, like during the 1995 fire that claimed the lives of three crew members.

The Lost Hills blaze presents a unique challenge: The site is known in the industry as a wildcat well, one drilled without exploratory research to determine the size of the natural gas reserve below. Without that, officials don't know how big a beast they're dealing with, or how long it could burn unchecked. Officials have yet to determine a cause for the blaze, which so far has caused no injuries.

Tuppen said gas well leaks are more safely fought while burning. Without a flame, the leaking gas could explode if set off by a spark--something as simple as static electricity or a rock striking the metal pipe below earth.

The first solution to the wildcatter fire is to set off a 55-gallon drum of dynamite over the mouth of the well to rob the fire of oxygen and extinguish the flames so crew members can get close enough to cap the well.

If that doesn't work, firefighters will drill a secondary relief well adjacent to the burning well, eventually connecting the two and pumping in fire-retardant fluids that will rise to the surface and kill the flames. Such a project is dangerous so close to the flames and could take months to complete.

For now, all well operators can do is watch the fire burn incessantly like some Olympic flame eerily lighting up the country night.

"Sooner or later," Tuppen said. "We're gonna win this fight."

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