ELK CITY, Okla. (AP) – Ronnie Roles fought oil fires in Kuwait knowing unexploded cluster bombs lay hidden in the desert sand. The smoke was so thick, noon turned to night. The fire burned so hot, an ordinary hard hat would have melted.

But for all the danger in Kuwait’s burning oil fields 12 years ago, Roles fears the fires could be bigger, more numerous and far more risky if a cornered and desperate Saddam Hussein turns the torch on Iraq’s oil fields, as his retreating troops did in Kuwait, to disrupt the world’s oil markets.

“We expect him to cause considerable more damage,” said Roles, president of operations for Cudd Pressure Control, an Oklahoma company preparing for war from an office on the American prairie.

The Department of Defense has already asked the company for a plan detailing the number of men and equipment it could send to fight fires in Iraq, Roles said.

Iraqis damaged or set fire to 788 oil wells in Kuwait – nearly all of them – in the closing days of the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq is believed to have almost twice that number, about 1,500, and some estimates run as high as 2,500, Roles said.

The firefighters doubt all the wells would be burned, but the fires could be bigger in Iraq because there is more oil to feed the flames: Kuwait’s wells pumped an average 20,000 to 40,000 barrels per day; some Iraqi wells are capable of producing 60,000 to 80,000 barrels, said Bill Mahler, marketing manager at Wild Well Control.

Iraq’s mountainous terrain and wetlands could make the oil far more difficult to control than the sand berms used in Kuwait’s desert, as well. Even if the wells aren’t set on fire, gushing oil could threaten water supplies.

“After seeing the first mess they made, there’s no doubt in my mind they’ve got the ability to make a big or bigger mess in their own backyard,” said Jerry Winchester, Boots & Coots president and chief operating officer.

Then there’s simply Iraq’s size – “the difference between Houston and all of Texas,” Mahler said – hampering crews’ ability to quickly reach wells.

In Kuwait, most of the damage came at the well heads. But Roles believes Iraq could set explosives deeper this time, damaging well casings.

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