Gas fire kills firefighters in India's Assam, forces evacuation

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Policemen gesture as they ask people to move to a safer place as smoke rises to the sky following an explosion at an oil well in Assam [Partha Sarathi Das/AFP]

Policemen gesture as they ask people to move to a safer place as smoke rises to the sky following an explosion at an oil well in Assam [Partha Sarathi Das/AFP]

A raging fire at a natural gas field in remote northeastern India has killed two firefighters and forced nearly 8,000 people to leave their homes, an official said.

Workers have been trying to cap the well since gas started leaking nearly two weeks ago, Tridiv Hazarika, spokesman for government-owned Oil India Limited (OIL), said on Wednesday.

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OIL operates the gas field in Baghjan, 550km (345 miles) east of Guwahati, the Assam state capital.

The well caught fire after an initial explosion on Tuesday, when the two firefighters went missing. Their bodies were recovered on Wednesday, Hazarika said.

Flames were still leaping nearly 15 metres (50 feet) into the sky more than 36 hours after the inferno began.

"We started evacuating people in the vicinity of the well from May 28 onward, and have flown in experts from the Singapore-based company Alert Disaster Control," Hazarika said.

The fire in the periphery of the well has been doused, but it has spread mainly because of the presence of natural gas condensate in the region, Hazarika said.

Hundreds of people came out of villages in the periphery to watch the fire and the thick black plume of smoke which could be seen several kilometres away.

Some 200 engineers and workers - including a team of experts who arrived from Singapore on Monday - are trying to stem the leak within four weeks, the company said.

Environmentalists said they were increasingly worried about the impact of the gas leak.

The well was producing 100,000 standard cubic metres per day (SCMD) of gas from a depth of 3,870 metres (4,234 yards) before the blowout in May, according to the OIL.

Just one kilometre from the field is Maguri-Motapung wetlands, an ecotourism site. State-owned sanctuary Dibru Saikhowa National Park - renowned for migratory birds - is about 2.5km (1.5 miles) away.

Authorities established an exclusion zone of 1.5km (about a mile) and ordered a probe into the deaths of five people from the areas surrounding the field.

But the district administration said a preliminary investigation suggested they died of natural causes.

SOURCE: News agencies

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