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Fighting Fire With Fire - Red Adair

Updated on November 25, 2017
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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.

Red Adair: An American Hero - the Authorized Biography
Red Adair: An American Hero - the Authorized Biography
Red Adair is now a multimillionaire, but he has worked his way up from a poor childhood in Houston where he spent years on the railways and on bomb-disposal before becoming an expert on oil-well firefighting. This is an account of his heroic life fighting fires all over the world - the 800-foot Devil's Cigarette Lighter in Algeria, fires in the giant wells of the Awaz Field in Iran, the sabotaged wells of Sumatra and Libya, and most recently, the Piper Alpha explosion in the North Sea.

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 | Source

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.

An American Hero: The Red Adair Story : An Authorized Biography
An American Hero: The Red Adair Story : An Authorized Biography
This life story of Paul Neal (Red) Adair, an extraordinary good ol' Texas boy, is interspersed with, and overshadowed by, stories of the famous oil well fires he extinguished from Arkansas to the Southeast Asian peninsula of Malaya. Also included are the 1988 North Sea and the 1961 Algerian blazes--the latter visible to American astronauts from their space capsule. There is great drama in Red's battles with nerve and nitro against oil disasters (John Wayne played a character based on Adair in the 1969 film Hellfighters ), and there is just enough technical detail to enthrall readers and make them accept the author's estimate of Red Adair as an all-time hero. Readers Digest plans to serialize the story, so expect patron demand for the book. --Janice Dunham, John Jay Coll. Lib., CUNY Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc.


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."

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 | Source

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


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    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      5 years ago from East Central Indiana

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

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      5 years ago from Texas

      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.

    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      5 years ago from East Central Indiana

      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 profile image


      5 years ago from USA

      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.

    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      6 years ago from East Central Indiana

      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 profile image

      Earl Noah Bernsby 

      6 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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

    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      8 years ago from East Central Indiana

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

    • WesternHistory profile image


      8 years ago from California

      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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