QAYYARAH, Iraq — The flames exploded into the sky like a volcanic eruption, blanketing a swath of the Iraqi countryside in a noxious haze of black smoke.
The inferno reached more than 300 feet high on a recent afternoon when the wind shifted direction, bending the billowing wall of fire toward the men from Iraq’s North Oil Co. on the ground below.
Within seconds, a fast-moving cloud of hot gas and thick smoke washed over the work site, blotting out the sun and sending workers and engineers scurrying for safety.
Some of the men sprinted toward their vehicles; others took cover in corrugated tin sheds, where they patiently waited for the wind to change direction so they could return to the work without being burned alive.
It was just another day in the life of an Iraqi oil worker.
“If hell is fire, then this place is hell on Earth,” said Ayad al-Jboory, 42, assistant chief geologist for the North Oil Co. “It looks like the end of the world.”
Fifty miles north in Mosul, beleaguered Islamic State fighters have lost control of half of their last major stronghold as Iraqi security forces advance. But at least five of the 25 oil well fires left in the militants’ wake still rage, according to Reuters, forming a second front in the battle for Iraq that is no less dangerous for the proud men involved.
Each well is a battle unto itself, revealing the militants’ willingness to harness chaotic destruction as a weapon.
Oil workers are fond of saying that the best protective clothing when battling a stubborn blaze is distance. In that case, the 100 or so men manning Well 77 several miles outside Qayyarah work so close to the flames that they might as well be naked. Their goal sounds simple enough: control the fire, stop the oil leak, cap the well and move on to the next one. The reality of the job is far more complicated.
Aside from the unpredictable flames, poisonous gases and rapidly changing conditions, the men from the North Oil Co. — most of whom are from Kirkuk and Irbil — toil for long hours using equipment prone to overheating and failure. There is also the ever-present threat of booby traps and explosive devices, which are still being found around damaged wells. The men — wearing tar-stained clothing, helmets and sometimes only scarves to cover their faces — keep photos of the homemade bombs on their cellphones to show family members and friends.
“This is a dangerous job — too hard,” said Mohammed Marouf, a 40-year-old firefighter and father of four from Kirkuk. “My wife and my children know it’s a hard job and it’s not safe, and my wife wants to know why I won’t stop. I tell her I am doing this for the future of our country.
“This is good for Iraq,” he added.
The Islamic State “made hundreds of millions of dollars” by selling oil on the black market after capturing oil fields in Iraq and Syria in 2014, according to U.S. government estimates cited by Reuters.
Before Iraqi security forces retook this area in August, Islamic State fighters placed explosives at about 20 wells, and snipers detonated them from afar.
Experts say the militants may have many reasons for setting the flames.
“They tend to just do things to cause destruction and, basically, just to be nasty,” Oxfam spokeswoman Amy Christian said. “They’ll destroy water plants so there’s no access to clean drinking water, for example.”
Hamza al-Jawahiri, an official in the Iraqi Oil Ministry, said oil workers have fully repaired about half of the wells destroyed by the Islamic State. Collectively, he said, the damaged wells can produce 50,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day, much of which is bitumen — a particularly thick grade of crude used primarily in road construction.
All of the wells place the workers in extreme danger — for wages of about $50 a day.
“The biggest challenge that the workers are facing right now is the security situation, since they are working very close to a battlefield full of IEDs that have to be defused,” Jawahiri said. “There’s also the bad weather conditions. Working with huge fires means the wind can be deadly sometimes.”
To date, workers said, no location had presented more problems than Well 77, where they have been trying to contain the flames for months. When they arrived here, the men said, the Islamic State was still lobbing mortars at the well. Now, they had another problem: The well was badly damaged and unusually deep, causing equipment to break, disgorging toxic gases and unleashing at the surface a massive column of fire so intensely hot that it could singe the skin of a person 100 yards away. Engineers on the ground estimated that the well was burning between 500 and 1,000 barrels of oil a day.
The battle was slow and exhausting, with firefighters aiming a stream of water at the wellhead while a backhoe struggled to remove rocks, tar and flaming sand that was being dumped at the men’s feet. The goal, workers said, was to control the fire so they could move close enough to the wellhead to inject it with water and then cement, plugging the subterranean column permanently.
Progress ended when the backhoe overheated, forcing the men to drive it away from the fire and cool the machine with jets of water. It was the middle of January, and the temperature was in the low 50s. Last summer, the men said, they battled flames under a scorching sun in heat that topped 120 degrees.
The men work from sunrise to sunset, taking a midday break to eat lunch and pray under the billowing tower of smoke and fire. There have been injuries and burns over the past few months, but so far, supervisors said, nobody had been killed. Parked among the trucks and digging equipment, an ambulance is always on call.
Despite the perilous conditions, Jboory said, his men volunteered for the job, mostly because of national pride but also out of contempt for the Islamic State.
Asked what it will be like when the well is finally capped, the engineer beamed.
“Like Christmas,” he said.
“The men are sacrificing everything to do this job — just like a soldier,” Jboory added. “This is another way to fight ISIS. We already hate them, but each day under this fire and smoke, we hate them even more.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.