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What It's Like Putting Out Oil Fires Lit by Retreating ISIS Fighters

VICE reporter Chris Shearer takes us to Iraq where he learned the dangers and frustrations of war-time firefighting.

"My mother doesn't know that I'm here. She doesn't know that I do this. If she learned I am here, she won't open the door to me when I come home."

Farad, his face splattered with oil, smiles as he tells me this. His mother knows he's an engineer. She knows he works for Iraq's Northern Oil Company, based out his hometown of Kirkuk. What she doesn't know is that he's risking his life every day by fighting oil well fires set ablaze by Islamic State fighters as they fled Qayyarah, about 40 miles south of Mosul.

Crew members covered in oil. All photos by the author

Today, he and his crew are working a well that's no longer burning but continues to spray oil and toxic gas from the damaged wellhead. I've just watched him and his men take turns carrying out the day's ritual: affix respirators to their face, climb down a ladder into an oil-slicked pit, strain against stiff valves on the exposed wellhead, be overwhelmed by the gases, retreat, and repeat.

A single spark from the tools on metal could reignite the whole well, so firemen constantly soak the wellhead with their hoses. One of the firefighters, apparently a gambler, lets a lit cigarette dangle from his lips as he stands on the edge of the pit. The air rings with alarms as the personal exposure alerts do their best to notify disinterested ears. The air is full of toxic hydrogen sulphide gas, like always, but no one cares.

"In that moment, I don't care about the toxic fumes," says Farad. "I think about controlling the well. I have one aim, one goal. It's like killing a monster," he says, grinning. "A monster with three heads."

The approach

It's not hard to find Qayyarah, in northern Iraq's Ninevah Province. The black smoke pluming from oil fires completely consumes the landscape—a landscape that is otherwise just tan-colored, undulating plains in all directions. Even with your closed eyes, you could follow the smell of sulphur right into town. And as you get closer, the black funnels become a ceiling, blanketing Qayyarah's homes and businesses like night.

Up close, the fires are like nothing else I've ever seen: seas of burning oil hundreds of square meters around the wellhead, flames curling and rolling into the air like entire city blocks, hundreds of yards up.

Keeping the bulldozer free of flames while they excavate the oil sand

When I ask one firefighter why he thinks ISIS set the wells alight, his answer is a laconic "terrorists just destroy things." From what I've heard and seen so far in the country, it was probably mostly to do with creating cover from airstrikes for their eventual retreat. It could also have been a final "fuck you" to residents of the town who welcomed the return of Baghdad's security forces after two years.

Qayyarah itself, like many towns recaptured from ISIS over the past few months, gives vivid reality to the term "war-torn." Buildings have been flattened or ripped open, others pocked by bullet holes and rocket bursts. Heavily armed Shia militiamen and Iraqi police man checkpoints or patrol the streets. There's an eeriness to the light, a kind of perpetual dusk as the sun, a white ball behind the clouds above, struggles to reach the streets below. The ever-present smoke has left a layer of black grime over everything, including the local residents. Many, particularly the young and the elderly, are suffering under the effects of the smoke. Some have died. A nurse at the clinic tells me they get at least ten new cases of respiratory illnesses a day, and sometimes up to 20. By the time we arrive, this has been going on for ten weeks.

Farad instructing his team

"The priority is stopping the fires," says general manager of the Qayyarah oil field, Muhammed Akash. Trying to work out how many of the 51 wells in the area are burning is like trying to peg down figures for anything in Iraq, a Sisyphean labor. Muhammad tells me it's not clear from the air how many wells have been set alight because of the thick smoke, and the police engineers are only clearing the roads of mines left by ISIS when they need to move to the next one. He suspects there were about 20 wells burning, and can say in the ten weeks they've been here they've put out four and are working on the fifth. It can take anywhere from a fortnight to a month to bring a single well under control, so he has no idea when all the fires will be extinguished.

"It depends on the scale of the fires, where the explosion hit," he explains. "It could be a year."

How they put out the fires depends on the circumstances. Muhammed explains that sometimes they use explosives to starve the fire of oxygen, sometimes chemicals are injected directly into the pipe to smother the flames. At one well, where the burning oil has ringed the wellhead, lead engineer Ali Aksen explains the course of action.

Hell

"The digger clears out the area here," he says, gesturing at a blackened machine at the edge of a flaming lake. It lifts a load of burning oil and sand as firefighters hose down the arm, dumps it where it can be extinguished, and goes back for more.

"With water, we will cool it down until we reach the source of the oil. Then we inject a mixture of water and salt into the pipeline. The brine material stops the gas from coming up," Ali explains. We're standing only a few meters away from the flames, and already I can feel the exposed skin on my hands and face starting to burn. The digger's cab is even closer, but its operator, Abdul, is nonchalant about the whole thing, even though I've noticed the digger slip on an oily incline a couple of times in just a few minutes.

"Yes, of course, it's dangerous, but when I'm with these guys, I don't feel it," he says. "If I was afraid, I couldn't work here." It's the same kind of no-fear attitude I've seen a lot of in this country, but with none of the bravado I'm used to hearing when speaking to soldiers. Everyone working here—firefighters, engineers, machinery operators—has a kind of muted-dedication to the work, with none of the pomp of the army. There's also a camaraderie that's in stark contrast to the simmering mistrust between the various militias, security forces, and ethnicities we've encountered throughout the area.

Farad helps a guy overcome by fumes.

"I consider all of them as myself, and I consider us as one team," says Farad. He's a Kurd from Kirkuk, where ethnic tensions may simmer over after the ISIS threat is repulsed, but here he leads Arabs and Turkmen, Sunnis and Shias. "We are the same."

Moments later, he's called to the edge of the pit. A few men raise their arms in triumph: They've got the well under control. There's some back-patting, hand-shaking, and posing for pictures. Tomorrow they'll start from scratch again.

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