The Kuwaiti oil fires were a result of the scorched earth policy of Iraqi military forces retreating from Kuwait in 1991 after conquering the country but being driven out by Coalition military forces (see Gulf War).
The resulting fires burned out of control because of the dangers of sending in firefighting crews. Land mines had been placed in areas around the oil wells, and a military cleaning of the areas was necessary before the fires could be put out. Somewhere around of oil were lost each day. Eventually, privately contracted crews extinguished the fires, at a total cost of US$1.5 billion to Kuwait. By that time, however, the fires had burned for months, causing widespread pollution. The byproducts of the petroleum burn caused pollution to the soil and air, and the oil fires have been linked in the popular imagination with what was later called Gulf War Syndrome. Whether this syndrome has been caused by the oil fires, by chemical attack, or other causes has not been determined, and the longterm environmental effects of the fires have yet to be fully understood.
During Operation Desert Storm, Dr. S. Fred Singer debated Carl Sagan on the impact of the Kuwaiti petroleum fires on the ABC News program Nightline. Sagan said we know from the nuclear winter investigation that the smoke would loft into the upper atmosphere and that he believed the net effects would be very similar to the explosion of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815, which resulted in the year 1816 being known as the Year Without a Summer, in massive agricultural failures, in very serious human suffering and, in some cases, starvation. He predicted the same for south Asia, and perhaps for a significant fraction of the northern hemisphere as well as a result. Singer, on the other hand, said that calculations showed that the smoke would go to an altitude of about and then be rained out after about three to five days and thus the lifetime of the smoke would be limited. In retrospect, we now know that smoke from the Kuwait Oil Fires dominated the weather pattern throughout the Persian Gulf and surrounding region during 1991, and that lower atmospheric wind blew the smoke along the eastern half of the Arabian Peninsula, and cities like Dhahran, Riyadh and Bahrain experienced days with smoke filled skies and carbon fallout.
The companies responsible for extinguishing the fires are Red Adair Company (now sold off to Global Industries of Louisiana), Boots and Coots (now Boots and Coots/IWC), Wild Well Control, Safety Boss, Cudd Well/Pressure Control, Neal Adams Firefighters, and Kuwait Wild Well Killers. All the wells were eventually fully extinguished and brought back under control.
Nearly 700 oil wells were set ablaze by the retreating Iraqi army and the fires were not fully extinguished until November 6 1991, eight months after the end of the war. The fires consumed an estimated six million barrels of oil daily. Their immediate consequence was a dramatic decrease in air quality, causing respiratory problems for many Kuwaitis. The sabotage of the oil wells also impacted the desert environment, which has a limited natural cleansing ability. Unignited oil from the wells formed about 300 oil lakes that contaminated around 40 million tons of sand and earth. Cleaning efforts led by the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research and the Arab Oil Co., who have tested a number of technologies including the use of petroleum-degrading bacteria, produced significant results. In fact, vegetation in most of the contaminated areas adjoining the oil lakes began recovering by 1995, but the dry climate has also partially solidified some of the lakes. Over time the oil has continued to sink into the sand, with as yet unknown consequences for Kuwait's precious groundwater resources.