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Fighting Fire With Fire - Red Adair

Blessed with a Physician Father and Schoolteacher Mother, I acquired the gift of learning at an early age. The passion has grown ever since!

Many only know the name from John Wayne's depiction of him in the 1968 movie "Hellfighters", but the legendary "Red" Adair was the best in the business when it came to extinguishing horrific fires.

Working Class Roots

Paul Neal Adair was born in Houston in 1915 to Mary and Charles Adair, a metal worker. He acquired the nickname "Red" from his 4 brothers and 3 sisters because of his bright red hair, which became his trademark. He wore red boots, red clothes, drove red cars and years later furnished his crew with red trucks and red equipment.

Paul "Red" Adair

Paul "Red" Adair

He dropped out of school in order to work and help his family make ends meet during the great depression. He bounced through various jobs including drugstore clerk and railroad hand until taking his first oil related job in 1938 with the Otis Pressure Control Company.

In the Second World War, "Red" was trained as a bomb removal and demolitions expert in the U.S. Army's 139th Bomb Disposal Squadron. He served in Japan during the final days of the war, where his duty was to search for and disarm undetonated ordnance.

After the war, he befriended another Houstonian named Myron Kinley who was the foremost authority on oil fires at the time. Adair worked for Kinley for 14 years until starting his own business in 1959.

Over the course of his 36 year career, Adair and his crews would battle over 2,000 fires around the globe - Some were on land and some were off-shore, some oil fires and others natural gas.

Fighting Fire With Fire

With the use of explosives, Adair developed an effective method to curtail oil fires. The detonation of an explosive would consume a fire's oxygen, enabling team members to get close enough to cap the flow of fuel feeding the flame at ground level, which was the most dangerous part. By using water, dirt and special machinery, the capping of a well fire was able to be controlled. Adair's process became known in the industry as "Wild Well Control" techniques.

The "Devil's Lighter" - 1962

One of his most well-known projects, known as the "Devil's Lighter", burned for 6 months in the Algerian Sahara desert. The extreme heat melted the surrounding desert sand into glass and it's 140 meter high flame was visible by John Glenn from Earth's orbit. It was Adair's success of "Devil's Lighter" that spiked Hollywood's interest and prompted the John Wayne movie "Hellfighters".

Off Shore Notables

The Ixtoc I blowout occurred at the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico on June 3rd, 1979. It took nearly 10 months for Adair and others participating in the project to cap the spill.

Ixtoc I wellhead blowout - Bay of Campeche

Ixtoc I wellhead blowout - Bay of Campeche

In the Campos Basin off the coast of Rio de Janeiro in 1984, Adair's team extinguished the Petrobras Enchova Central Platform Fire, and in 1988, his specialists were the first to board the Occidental Petroleum Company's Piper Alpha rig which was destroyed in an explosion in the North Sea.

The Gulf War

Following the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Adair and his crewmen were called into Kuwait to extinguish fires ignited by the Iraqi troops as they were being pursued by coalition forces. Within 3 months, Adair met government officials in Washington, D.C. to discuss his concern for his crews regarding medical services and of the landmines throughout the region. After meeting with George H. W. Bush, support was granted and additional equipment was provided to the crews to complete their jobs.

That same year, Adair and his crews performed 16 additional jobs in India, Venezuela, Nigeria, the Gulf of Mexico and the United States.

In 1993, Red retired and sold Red Adair Company, Inc. He continued to be involved in a consulting capacity, forming Adair Enterprises, Inc. where he would remain President for the remainder of his life.


Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush all commended Adair with Special Letters of Recognition during his life.

From one of those letters;

"Through your undaunted courage, perseverance, and skill, you have probably saved more oil than any single individual in the world. Each time you go into a wild oil fire situation, you demonstrate again that American ingenuity, skill, and self-discipline can master the seemingly impossible. You have served your country well by your willingness to do a dangerous and important job with a rare ability. In an age said to be without heroes, you are an authentic hero."

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His many awards received include the following:

  • Outstanding Houstonian Award
  • Houston Distinguished Sales and Citizenship Award
  • Distinguished Oil Man and Sports Booster Award
  • Water Safety and Preservation of Our Natural Resources Award
  • American Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award

Red was an active contributor of time and finances to many charitable organizations including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Arabian Temple Crippled Children and Burn Institute, the Leukemia Society of American, the Easter Seal Society, the Epilepsy Association and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. He was honored for his support by an Oil Industry "Roast and Toast" which was sponsored by the Easter Seal Society.

Wake of a Hero

"Red" passed away on August 7, 2004, at the age of 89. Family and friends wore red at his funeral in honor of a man who lived his life on the edge of danger, without fear for himself but willing to risk his own life to save others .

Asger "Boots" Hansen

Asger "Boots" Hansen

The Legacy Goes On

As long as our world relies upon oil and gas for it's livelihood, there will be wellhead blowouts and oil fires. The "Red Adair"s of today are still challenged to answer the call when disaster strikes as exemplified by the "Deepwater Horizon" debacle resulting from the rupture of a British Petroleum wellhead off of the Mississippi coast in 2010. BP tapped a student of Adair, Pat Campbell, to control the situation last year.

Adair's cohorts Asger "Boots" Hansen and Ed "Coots" Matthews formed a new company in 1978, "Boots & Coots", which is now the premier well control company in the world.

Ironically, Boots & Coots Oil International Well Control, Inc. sold out to Halliburton only 8 days before the "Deepwater" spill.

"If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur." - Red Adair

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Steve Dowell


Steve Dowell (author) from East Central Indiana on January 09, 2015:

Thank you very much for reading and sharing your thoughts Shyron!

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on January 09, 2015:

I agree with FlourishAnyway, this would make a great series. It is a shame that so many great people have faded into oblivion and we will never know to what extent they gave of themselves for the benefit of others.

Thank you for sharing this with us.

Steve Dowell (author) from East Central Indiana on January 09, 2015:

Great idea FlourishAnyway. Unfortunately, Red like many others of the era, are rapidly fading into oblivion. It is important for us to keep their memories alive as best we can.

Thanks for reading and your thoughtful input!

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 09, 2015:

Great story and that quote of his is fantastic. I had heard the name but really knew nothing of who he was. Voted up and more and sharing. This would make a great series, something along the lines of uncommon heroes, self-made men (and women), etc.

Steve Dowell (author) from East Central Indiana on January 31, 2014:

I thought that it was pretty cool that John Glenn witnessed the "Devil's Lighter" from orbit.

Thanks for your feedback Earl!

Earl Noah Bernsby on January 30, 2014:

What an excellent primer about Red Adair! You have certainly whet my appetite to learn more about this great American hero!

Steve Dowell (author) from East Central Indiana on November 04, 2011:

Glad you got something out of it. Thanks for your input WesternHistory!

WesternHistory from California on November 03, 2011:

Great hub. Very interesting information. I remember when Red Adair's company was called in to put out the well head fires set by Iraq.

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