Drillers knew they had a problem with the Telesis-Ritchie-37 Well #2 west of Palo Pinto, Texas, but what they weren't expecting was the massive 1:45 a.m. explosion on Dec. 16 that blew chunks of rock the size of pickups out of the ground, and left a half-acre crater. The six workers, along with a representative from the Texas Railroad Commission, fled for their lives. One worker received minor burns, but the others escaped injury-free.
People reported hearing the explosion for miles, and residents 100 miles away in Arlington reported seeing the huge glow. The burning gas ignited a wildfire that was initially reported to be a mile long and nearly a mile wide. Five volunteer fire departments responded from Mineral Wells, Possum Kingdom East, Palo Pinto, Strawn, and Lone Camp, and were able to knock down any flames on the wildfire's perimeter.
At 2 a.m. Mineral Wells Volunteer Fire Chief Steve Perdue and Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Liaison Officer Steve Reddish requested Texas Forest Service (TFS) resources.
"The vegetation is so dry, and with the terrain we have in western Palo Pinto County, we knew there was the potential for the wildfire to grow huge in a hurry," Perdue said. "I knew Texas Forest Service had dozers staged in Granbury and Abilene, and that single-engine air tankers (SEATs) were at the Mineral Wells airport. We decided to put an immediate request in for TFS resources."
When TFS Incident Commander Les Rogers was notified of the explosion, he wasn't exactly sure what type of fire he was responding to. The initial news and state operations center reports were conflicting: Some said a gas line had exploded, some that a well had blown out, and one that nearly 600-acres surrounding the blast were ablaze. Knowing the vicinity of the explosion, Rogers knew any wildfire could quickly grow to a multiple-day project fire.
"I was reluctant to roll any resources on the fire at night, especially without knowing what kind of fire we actually had," Rogers said. "Even without the element of a gas explosion, Palo Pinto County is rugged, so it would have been dangerous to put resources, especially dozers, on the ground in the dark. Our firefighters are not from that area, so they wouldn't have been familiar with the terrain. It was a 'watch out' situation from the beginning."
Rogers enlisted the help of a division supervisor and a safety officer, as well as an information officer to help manage the media. After arriving at the explosion site, Rogers decided the safest course of action was to wait for daylight.
"Once we realized how tenuous the situation was, I knew we couldn't put crews on the ground," he said. "The VFDs had done a great job of stopping the progression of the wildfire, but it was basically being held by a wetline. If the wind came up, we knew it wouldn't hold. The burning crater was surrounded by grass and heavy juniper, which is very volatile. To add to the situation, the explosion site was in a bowl, with fairly steep slopes around it. If the wildfire made a run, it would have consumed a lot of acreage."
Rogers decided the safest attack on the wildfire, which was actually 50 acres, was from the air. The Texas Forest Service staged four bulldozers at the intersection of I-20 and Hwy. 16, but they were only to be used if the gas fire was extinguished and it was deemed safe. Under normal circumstances, TFS would use the dozers to construct firelines around the fire, backfire off them if necessary, and burnout any unburned pockets of fuel. It was apparent that those tactics would not be the best choice on this fire.
"Until a geologist from the Railroad Commission could determine what the hazards were, we weren't putting a handcrew or dozers on the ground," Rogers said. "When we realized fire was burning in fractures in the ground and between rocks, we knew SEATs were our best option."
TFS first launched an air attack plane, which not only served as "eyes in the sky," but also coordinated all aircraft in the area, including four media helicopters, a medical ambulance helicopter and two SEATs. The SEATs dropped eight loads of Class A foam on the south and west perimeter of the fire. TFS hauled retardant from the U.S. Forest Service's LBJ National Grasslands in Decatur so the SEATs could be even more effective and keep the wildfire from making an upslope run. The SEATs dropped four, 800-gallon loads of retardant, basically painting a fireline in the crucial areas.
While investigators were unsure what caused the natural gas to ignite, they determined fairly quickly that the explosion was caused by natural gas escaping from the side walls of a 4,000-foot gas well being drilled by Sand Dollar Drilling, who was contracted by Telesis Operating Co., Inc., of Fort Worth. During the drilling process, natural gas began escaping from the bottom of the well, which caused an underground cross flow and spread gas through the substratum.
According to the Texas Railroad Commission, high-pressure natural gas migrated to the surrounding subsurface and formed pockets. As the higher pressure gas vented to the surface, something ignited it, creating an explosion. A one-mile radius around the well site displayed evidence of natural gas within the substrate. In that area, plugged, abandoned wells and ground fractures experienced gas venting from the ground.
Because natural gas was venting through subsurface fracture layers in the ground, there remained a risk of additional explosions. The best option was to contain the fire to the crater and allow it to continue to burn, essentially flaring the natural gas rather than allowing the unburned gas to accumulate and create further risk of explosion.
Telesis hired Cudd Pressure Control to gain control of the free flowing gas that was escaping the well head. After removing the drilling rig, Cudd placed a snubbing unit on top of the well. A snubbing device is made up of a pipe clamping system that allows drillers to force casing 4,000 feet down the well to control the gas flow. During the process, more than 1,500 psi of gas pressure was shooting up approximately 200 feet into the air. According to Cudd representatives, the process of using a snubbing unit is both very tedious and dangerous because the slightest spark could ignite the high-pressure gas and cause a subsequent explosion.
Palo Pinto County Sheriff's Department and the Texas Department of Transportation closed State Highway 180 for more than five hours on Dec. 20 and Mineral Wells EMS, Palo Pint VFD, and Possum Kingdom VFD remained on standby while Cudd installed the snubbing unit. As of Dec. 21, natural gas was still free flowing, and the fire in the crater was still burning. Cudd estimated it would take three more days to gain control of the well.
Traci Weaver is an Information Officer Type One and an Urban-Wildland Interface Specialist for the Texas Forest Service in Granbury, Texas. Charles Holbrook is an Information Officer Type Three and Project Leader of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Austwell, Texas.