Here is a New Way to Fight Oil Fires
Sloping Tunnel Dug to Reach Casing of Well to Relieve Pressure and to Stop Flow of Gas—Method Has Proven Effective at Two Large Fires
OIL well fires are mighty serious. The supply underground continues to feed the roaring torch, and the zone near the well becomes too hot for the fire fighters. A new method of extinguishing such fires has been successfully carried out in the California oil fields. The article and illustrations are reproduced through the courtesy of the “Compressed Air Magazine.”
Imagine a roaring torch with a flame 180 feet high and you get an idea of the sizzling spectacle that dominated the oil field of Sante Fe Springs, Calif., during most of last November. As long as it continued to burn it was a menace to neighboring properties; and until that flame was snuffed out it consumed, so it has been estimated, something like 4,000 barrels of petroleum and between 5,000,000 and 10,000,000 cubic feet of gas every 24 hours.
Besides wrecking the derrick that had stood over the well—turning the steelwork into a crumpled, fused mass of metal, the intense heat of the thunderous torch either damaged directly or necessitated the destruction and abandonment of near-by derricks and other equipment in order to prevent the spread of the fire and the possibility of a still greater catastrophe.
It is well-nigh impossible to convey an adequate idea of the magnitude and the withering heat of such a torch. The noisy reverberation of the flame was deafening, and could be likened only to the simultaneous blast of the safety valves of a score or more of giant locomotives.
On the windward side of the flame, in the protecting sweep of air streams set in motion by airplane propellers driven by airplane engines mounted on trucks strategically placed, the heat was hot enough at a distance of 100 feet to singe the hair on one’s bare hands. The surrounding ground was baked, and the surface nearly as hot as the top of a stove. Men could approach the projecting top of the casing only when garbed in asbestos and further shielded by streams of water played upon them. Bulwarks or breastworks of earth, thrown up around the well, served as a potential defense against any oil that might flood the area; and barricades of sheet iron were erected as a cover for the fire fighters and as a partial protection to some of the standing derricks, tanks, and other equipment. The scene was, indeed, a battle ground. The hazards were numerous; and no one could foretell when and how they would break loose.
The Bell View gasser blew in out of control on November 8, and took fire immediately either from the chance spark of friction or contact with the fire under some of the boilers in the vicinity. The towering flame was not snuffed out until the last day of November. That climax to nearly two weeks of desperate work quenched a beacon that had been visible nightly for many miles and has served as a guide the while to mail-carrying air pilots heading for Los Angeles.
The Bell View fire was the second outburst of the sort in the Santa Fe field, and further confirmed the existence of another high-pressure gas zone in the underlying sands— bringing the total up to four zones and emphasizing the need of great caution in penetrating these areas lest additional wells blow in out of control and entail extravagantly costly losses. Prompt action and a measure of good luck saved some three or four other wells from running riot, so to speak. The first evidence of the fire hazard due to highpressure gas appeared when George F. Getty’s Nordstrom No. 17 blew in out of control on September 16 —the escaping gas being well-nigh instantly ignited when the spreading gas reached the fire bed of a neighboring boiler. At the start, the flame was fed with 25,000,000 cubic feet of gas and about 5,000 barrels of oil; and for substantially seven weeks the torch burned menacingly.
In a short while after the conflagration started, the steel rig over the well was wrecked, and a number of near-by wooden rigs were destroyed. All told, five steel rigs and an equal number of wooden ones were torn down or blown to bits with dynamite to minimize the likelihood of the fire spreading. Something like 40 strings of tools ceased working on other wells lying within the danger zone. What was done finally to quench the flame at Getty’s Nordstrom No. 17 should be mentioned so that we can understand the procedure adopted in the case of the Bell View well.
After all other efforts had failed, it was decided to drive a sloping tunnel 240 feet long so as to reach the casing of the well at a point about 50 feet below the ground surface. The tunnel was driven from a pit—the excavated earth being banked up on the side nearest the blaze and serving as additional support to an asbestos shield 30 feet high and 70 feet long. Equipped with air-driven clay diggers—the air being furnished by two 7×6-inch portable compressors, the men began their toilsome and risky work of tunneling. Each crew consisted of two diggers, two muckers, and two timbermen; and each crew labored only for half an hour at a time.
In section, when timbered, the tunnel was 4 feet wide and 5 feet high, and sloped at an angle of approximately 15 degrees. The purpose of tunneling was to tap the piping of the well and to by-pass the oil and gas through other pipes passing rearward through the tunnel—thus reducing the fuel to the flame sufficiently to permit snuffing it by covering it with a metal cone. The method employed in tapping the well casing is similar to that in common use in tapping highpressure gas and water mains in municipal systems.
In the case of Getty’s No. 17, there were three strings of pipe in the hole, ranging from 16 inches in diameter to 9 inches in diameter, and all these had to be tapped in making the connections that were to carry the fuel away from below the flame. This fuel was, in the main, gas, and this was drawn off through four 3-inch lead pipes—several XB compressors being used to withdraw the gas at a sufficient rate to reduce the torch above ground to a relatively modest flame that could be snuffed out with a cone lowered into position by a caterpillar derrick. The driving of the tunnel and the completion of the difficult work called for substantially 28 days of continuous effort. The work on Getty’s Nordstrum No. 17 was carried on under the direction of the General Petroleum Company, and the tunneling was finally carried out successfully by the Robinson-Roberts Company, engineers and contractors of Los Angeles.
With the experience gained in dealing with Getty’s No. 17, the blowing in out of control of the Bell View high-pressure gasser presented nothing new as a fire-fighting problem. The destructive violence of the flame was disturbing only for a relatively brief period, during which neighboring property owners got together and guaranteed the funds necessary to carry on the battle with the ignited wildcat. It was decided that the best way to proceed would be to drive a slanting tunnel from the closest practicable point so as to reach the well casing substantially 50 feet below the ground surface and to tap the casing, as was done at Getty’s No. 17. This would make it possible greatly to diminish the flow of fuel to the flame and thus to reduce the size and fierceness of the torch to a degree that would permit it to be snuffed out by covering it with a suitable metal cone.
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Here Is New Way to Fight Oil Fires
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Theoretically, this was simple enough, but no one could tell whether or not the well was burning underground nor what grave risks would be run in approaching the casing or in tapping it. However, these risks had to be run; and the best that could be done was to minimize them by taking every precaution likely to safeguard the workers. Operations were generally supervised by C. W. Eckles, of the Union Oil Company; and the driving of the tunnel was awarded to the Robinson-Roberts Company who had done similar work on the previous blaze. The tunneling was done under the immediate direction of C. L. Roberts of the company mentioned.
As has been stated earlier, the Bell View well blew in out of control and became ignited on November 8, but it was not until eleven days later that the ground could be cleared and preparations completed for the subterranean attack. Prior to this a “Christmas tree”—a type of valve assembly familiar to oilmen—was placed on top of the casing. This provided an additional vertical length of smaller piping which raised the bottom of the torch that much higher above the ground. This Christmas tree was put in position by a power-shovel boom that was covered with asbestos and upon which streams of water were played as it approached the flaming well. It was a ticklish and a distressingly hot job.
Operations were begun by excavating a pit 45 feet deep and 20×30 feet in cross section. This pit permitted starting the tunnel portal at a point well below the ground level so that it could be continued on an easy slope that would intercept the well casing a little more than 200 feet away. The tunnel was driven through a sand-and-clay formation that had to be timbered from end to end. When timbered, the passage was 4 feet 6 inches wide and 6 feet 6 inches high in the clear.
The digging was done with No. 57 I-R clay diggers; and air to operate these tools was furnished by two 7×6-inch Type 20 portables that were hooked together. The men worked in crews of six and for very short periods because of the heat and the strenuous character of the task. Each crew—made up of two muckers, two miners, and two timbermen—was expected to show to its credit an advance of 6 feet during an 8-hour shift. The muckers received $7 a day, while the miners arid timbermen were paid $9 a day; and as an incentive to speedier advance a crew was paid a bonus of $1.50 for each additional foot of progress. As a matter of fact, some of the crews drove as much as 15 feet during an 8-hour shift. An average of 25 feet of linear advance was made every 24 hours.
When the 16-inch casing was uncovered at the inner end of the tunnel, a working chamber was excavated 14x14x12 feet in the clear—that is, inside of the heavy timbering. This chamber was necessary to provide ample room in fitting the valves and in cutting through the casing. Happily, the tunnel was driven without a single serious accident; and the excavating was done and the pipe-tapping apparatus fitted upon the casing in the record time of eleven days. The purpose of the contractor was to tap the 16-inch casing and to grout the space between it and the next or 11-inch pipe, and then to tap the 11-inch pipe and to grout the space between it and the inner or 7-inch oil string. A connection was to be made with the 7-inch pipe after it was tapped, and the oil and gas then to be led upward through the tunnel to the outlying pit where pumps were to be installed to pick them up and to convey them to suitable tanks located beyond the danger zone of the burning well.
Before Mr. Roberts and his men completed the connections underground, the fire fighters at the surface made one more effort to snuff out the flame at the mouth of the well. They succeeded despite the hazards confronting them —including the risk of being blown to bits or burned to a crisp before any aid could be rendered them. The valve assembly that had been placed on top of the casing was held there only by its weight and the fact that the attached open pipe furnished a free vent for the gas and oil that fed the flame; and the object was to weld the Christmas tree to the casing so that the valve could be closed and the blaze extinguished by cutting off its fuel.
To do this, men wearing asbestos suits crept toward the well while airplane propellers sent a blast in their direction strong enough to blow the flaming torch sidewise and to sweep much of its radiant heat away from the men. As the workers got nearer the well, firemen kept them covered with streams of water. Thus shielded, a boss mechanic and his welders got busy. First, the Christmas tree was secured to the well casing with two clamps that were screwed tight with long wrenches, and then the welders, with electric welding arcs, set about making the union a perfect one. Just how perilous that work was can be realized when it is learned that the boss mechanic was paid $1,500 and each welder $500 for their brief toying with sudden death.
With the clamps in place and the welding finished, then came the crucial moment. It was the job of the boss mechanic to close the valve on the Christmas tree and to shut off the supply of oil and gas to the torch that had roared its defiance for 22 days. If the welding and the clamps failed to hold or proved weak at any point, there was the hazard of a sheet of flame shooting out sidewise with possibly appalling results. It took an amazing amount of courage to stand there and to manipulate that valve; and the persons watching the operation did so with bated breath and hammering hearts. Fortunately, the clamps and the welding withstood the test, and the flame of the Bell View gasser petered out and was silenced.
During the eleven days that tunneling operations were pushed, a total of 100 men took their turns in carrying the work forward; and the cost of putting out the fire was in the neighborhood of $25,000. This sum does not include anv of the losses sustained by surrounding well owners who were forced to wreck some of their equipment and to cease their operations during the period of the fire. At the present time Sante Fe Springs is producing 100,000 barrels of oil a day; and this fact makes clear the possible economic loss that may follow from a widespread fire in that field where the gas pressures are exceptionally high and hard to handle.
Mamaroneck, N. Y., to Vote on Fire Apparatus—Mamaroneck, N. Y., will vote on the plan to purchase a pumper with chemical tank for $14,000.
Fire Apparatus to Carry Smokes and Tobacco—Fire apparatus in Lancaster, Pa., will carry chewing tobacco and cigarettes as part of the regular equipment. At a recent large fire, the men complained when they ran short of tobacco and cigarettes.