In August 2016, Iraqi forces, on an advance towards Mosul, seized the oil-rich northern town of Qayyarah from the grip of ISIS, who had held control for the previous two years. As they fled, the terror group lit several of the wells in the nearby oilfield, as well as a sulphur plant. Photos captured of the ensuing environmental chaos were captured by photographer Claire Thomas for a major photostory in Geographical’s April 2017 issue, as well as making a dramatic cover image:
As Claire Thomas’ photos depict, huge plumes and toxic gases from the burning wells blocked out the sun, poisoned the atmosphere, and forced more than 200 families to flee for their own safety. Thousands of people became ill from the suffocating smog, with many reportedly severe breathing problems.
Starting in May last year NASA’s Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 began picking up satellite images of the unfolding crisis, with increasingly large plumes through June and July indicating the extent to which ISIS fighters were sending the whole region up in smoke, as they first attempted to use the plumes for cover, and later as a last-ditch ‘scorched earth’ effort to destroy as many of the profitable wells as they could. By August, when Iraqi forces finally took control of the town again, the images show how much of the oilfield was fully ablaze.
Ever since taking back control of the town, teams of firefighters, machine operators, mechanics, engineers, and oil experts from across Iraq have worked together to put out the fires well-by-well. This requires injecting water directly into the oil wells, in an attempt to reach the base of each fire, which can take anything from a fortnight to over a month for each well. It requires the firefighters directly exposing themselves to immense heat, toxic gases, and potential unexploded devices planted by ISIS. Once each well is extinguished, it must be capped to stem the flow of the oil.
On 4 April, Iraq’s oil ministry formally announced that the fires had been officially extinguished. The latest NASA images, captured on 29 March, back up this assessment, finally showing not a single puff of smoke alongside a spring-green Tigris river.