Red Adair, Global Firefighter


Red Adair put out fires for a living. Oh, not just any fires, but burning oil and gas wells, fires that could have been fueled for decades and were expected to take years to extinguish with the best methods available. He was called out to fires all over the world, including war zones, because of his company's experience and expertise.

Adair's company put out thousands of fires, but a few were particularly memorable. In late 1961, his crew was called to Algeria where a natural gas fire burned so hotly that the desert sand melted into glass. The fire had burned for six months before Adair arrived, and was nicknamed the Devil's Cigarette Lighter.

Red never met a fire he couldn't lick. He bombed many of them into submission with high explosives. It seems wildly counterintuitive, using dynamite to subdue an inferno, but the physics are quite simple: a properly shaped and sized explosion will momentarily suck all the oxygen from a given area, thus starving the flames long enough to get a cap on the well. (Of course, done wrong, it's also extremely dangerous.) Red didn't invent the idea -- it had been used since before he started wrestling wells -- but he perfected it, made it an intuitive art.

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The company had to dig their own wells for water in the Sahara, and construct reservoirs. Adair spent months preparing for the final explosion that extinguished the flames in May of 1962. Putting out the Devil's Cigarette Lighter brought Adair worldwide fame, but he was just getting started. Watch a video report of the Sahara fire.

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Paul Neal Adair was born in 1915 in Houston, Texas, one of eight children. He dropped out of high school to help support the family. Adair held various jobs including seven years of work in the oil fields before he went into the army, where he served with the 139th Bomb Disposal Squadron during World War II. The nickname "Red" was a natural because of his red hair, and later he took to wearing red clothing, driving a red car, and using the color for his business equipment and literature.

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After the war, Adair went to work for the MM Kinley Company. Founder Myron Kinley pioneered the technique of fighting oil well fires with dynamite, which deprived the fire of oxygen. In 1959, Adair founded his own company, Red Adair Company, Inc.

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Adair's life read like an adventure movie script. After the Devil's Cigarette Lighter fire brought him worldwide fame, Hollywood noticed and based a feature film on Adair's life. The 1968 film Hellfighters starred John Wayne as a globetrotting firefighter loosely based on Adair, who served as a consultant to the film along with his company colleagues. The movie received lousy reviews, but Adair and Wayne became lifelong friends.

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In 1972, Adair founded the Red Adair Service and Marine Company to develop and market new firefighting equipment to be used on well and other massive fires. He rigged bulldozers with heat-resistant shields and developed a semi-submersible vehicle for fighting offshore fires. By then the company had accomplished some milestones, such as being the first to ever cap an American well while it was still on fire and putting out underwater well fires. Pictured is the IXTOC I blowout, an underwater fire in the Gulf of Mexico the Red Adair Company extinguished in 1980.

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On July 6, 1988, the Piper Alpha Rig Disaster killed 167 men in the North Sea. It was the deadliest oil rig disaster ever. Adair's company was the first to board the burning platform. They extinguished the last of the flames three weeks after the blowout, while dealing with 70-foot waves and 80 mph winds.

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At the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the retreating Iraqi forces set fire to the oil wells of Kuwait, around 700 fires total. Twenty-seven teams from sixteen countries fought the oil fires in Kuwait. The job of extinguishing those fires was estimated to take 3-5 years, but Adair, in his seventies at the time, put out the last of his company's 117 fires in November of 1991, just a few months after the operations began.

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Adair was 79 years old when he finally retired from firefighting in 1994 and sold Red Adair Company, but he still worked as a consultant with a new company named Adair Enterprises, Inc. He headed that company until his death at age 89 in 2004.