Water on Fire: Controlled Burns of Spilled Oil

A controlled burn of oil in the Gulf.

People here in the oil's bull's-eye need a lot more help than just protective boom. So out in the Gulf, smoke is a signal that less oil's coming ashore.

Fire on the water: It's oil, burning in towering columns of smoke and flame. Sixty miles into the Gulf is one of BP's frontline defenses against floating oil reaching shore reports CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

Special Section: Disaster in the Gulf

"As far as the front line goes, you can't get more front than this," says oil spill expert Al Allen.

This is by far the biggest controlled burn in history. Sometimes multiple fires burn at once. They resemble a roaring tornado of flames.

Up close there's a sound this burning oil makes, a crackling, bubbling noise like a Fryolator along with a whooshing noise from the flame tornados inside the bigger fire. The heat is intense. Flame temperatures can reach 2,000 degrees. That's hot enough to melt steel, and with so much oil in these waters some of these fires burn for more than six hours.

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Here's how the operation works. From a plane, spotters like Al Allen look for long streamers of heavy crude and direct shrimp boats with fire resistant boom down below into position.

"We talk to pilots and we talk to captains on the boats and we vector them into the oil," says BP engineer Nere Mabile.

The shrimpers corral the oil, what they call "the pudding." Then they wait for the "igniter boat."

Controlled burn igniter Anthony Verdin lights the flare that melts a jug filled with kerosene and accelerant gel. It ignites the oil. Within minutes a small fire can become a massive one. Big fires burn off 2,000 gallons a minute.

"Sometimes they get bigger. Sometimes they get smaller. It's never the same fire," says Verdin.

So far these fires have burned more than 4.5 million gallons of oil. That's only a fraction, maybe three days worth, of BP's overall leak. Every gallon burned is one less gallon making landfall on someone's coastline.

Coordinators of those burns say breathing that smoke is less dangerous than smoking cigarettes, but it is a nuisance.

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.