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From the Archives: Santa Fe Springs oil well fires

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Oct. 4, 1928: The collapse of the drill shaft in month-old Getty well fire leads to two flames. On the right is burning gas, on the left is burning oil.
(Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)

On Sep. 16, 1928, a George F. Getty Inc. well exploded at the Santa Fe Springs oil fields, igniting a fire that burned for almost two months. According to a Los Angeles Times caption the next day, the shock wave from the explosion was felt more than a mile away.

This oil field fire was one of several that occurred on a regular basis around Los Angeles in the 1920s. The Times article the next day began:

With a gas blowout that shook the country for miles around and hurled a 122-foot steel derrick clear over onto Telegraph Road, the old Santa Fe Springs oil field, now in process of development to the 6000-foot zone, yesterday harked back to the days of 1922 when its notorious gas blowouts tore great craters in the earth and burned for many days before they could be extinguished. Within an hour after the blowout occurred yesterday the fire was so intense that field workers and firemen could not get within 1000 feet of the gasser. All the available fire apparatus in the district was being used to protect surrounding property. ...

To extinguish the Getty blowout, a two-pronged strategy was used. First, a 200-foot underground shaft was dug to a spot 60 feet below the flames. Enough gas and oil were diverted to lower the force driving the flames.

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The second step was completed on Nov. 4, 1928. A special crane lowered a five-ton steel cap on the well, snuffing out the flames.

Sept. 19, 1928: Firefighters lay hoses to protect homes from an oil well fire in Santa Fe Springs.
Sept. 19, 1928: Firefighters lay hoses to protect homes from an oil well fire in Santa Fe Springs.
(Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)
Sept. 19, 1928: Ford Alexander, right, and his unidentified brother wear special asbestos firefighti
Sept. 19, 1928: Ford Alexander, right, and his unidentified brother wear special asbestos firefighting suits during fight to control burning Getty well.
(Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)
Nov. 4, 1928: The five-ton steel cap sits in front of the steam-powered crane that placed it on burn
Nov. 4, 1928: The five-ton steel cap sits in front of the steam-powered crane that placed it on burning Getty oil well.
(Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)

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Five days later, another Santa Fe Springs oil well, owned by Bell View Oil Co., blew. Four neighboring derricks burned and four more were toppled to prevent them from burning. One worker was killed. The fire was reported out in a Dec. 2, 1928, Los Angeles Times article.

On Jan. 9, 1929, another blowout and fire destroyed two Santa Fe Springs wells. That fire was put out three days later.

On June 10, 1929, two more wells caught fire and seven derricks were destroyed. One of the well fires was extinguished in a week. The other, owned by McKeon Oil Co., burned for 26 days with the now-familiar tunnel-and-cap method used to smother the flames.

According to a June 29, 1929, story, a 75-foot-long tunnel was dug 40 feet below the burning well. A 12-by-12-foot chamber allowed workers to attach equipment to siphon off oil. About 2900 barrels burned each day. The well was capped on July 6, 1929.

The Los Angeles Times covered the first Getty well fire extensively on the local news front page with a long story and photo. All three of the other fires received the same treatment on the day following the blowout. But follow-up coverage of the last three fires was confined to small updates inside the Times.

The Getty fire also received a full write up in this February 1929, edition of Popular Science.

Most Los Angeles Times staff images before 1950 did not receive photo credit. All attempts to identify the photographer or photographers of these images failed.

This post originally published on Dec. 10, 2010.

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June 11, 1929: The fourth fire in nine months breaks out at Santa Fe Springs oil field. One of the w
June 11, 1929: The fourth fire in nine months breaks out at Santa Fe Springs oil field. One of the wells, owned by McKeon Oil Co., burned for 26 days.
(Los Angeles Times)
June 1929: Workers dig a tunnel in an effort to cap the burning McKeon oil well behind them in Santa
June 1929: Workers dig a tunnel in an effort to cap the burning McKeon oil well behind them in Santa Fe Springs.
(Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA)

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