The wind ripples over a deathly lake of crude. Like stationary tornadoes from hell, scores of oil fires roar red, black and searing.

"We kill oil wells," drawls Mike Petrus, a 33-year-old Texan. "I guess that makes us special."Petrus and his colleagues have got a lot of killing to do - fleeing Iraqi troops ignited about 600 oil wells in Kuwait that burn about 6 million barrels of oil daily, crude worth more than $100 million.

On Monday, Petrus and four other specialists with Boots and Coots Co. of Houston, Texas, turned off a well that had spewed crude over an area the size of a baseball diamond.

The action, demanding lots of technique but only a few turns of a wrench, was one of the first moves in the biggest job these men have ever had.

Firefighters expect it will be at least two years before plumes of smoke cease to blacken Kuwait's skies, turning day into night and filling the air with poisonous hydrocarbons.

In some places the oil lies almost a foot thick. In others, tufts of desert brush poke their blackened heads above the goo. Barbed wire hid under the crude in several places - a grim reminder of war.

Heading the crew was Boots Hansen, a stocky, white-haired 65-year-old known as the "little general" to his men. The tough-talking Texan doesn't suffer fools gladly and supervises operations closely, even down to putting a "Boots and Coots" decal on the door of a Chevy van.

"Wanna go for a ride, fellas, and watch us get dirty?" Hansen said, cracking a rare, wry smile as the day began. He and his men wear bright white to fight oil fires. By the end of the day they are smeared black.

Other companies, like Red Adair's team, wear red. Joe Bowden's Wild Well Control Inc. of Spring, Texas, wears yellow.

"Some people may say we look kind of funny, but if there's an oil fire in the neighborhood, I don't think people would care what you look like as long as you put it out," Bowden says.

Bowden's business card tells it all. On one side, Wild Well Control Inc. is spelled out in letters that belong on the side of a Western saloon. On the other, an oil well fire in technicolor assaults the eyes.

Second in command is Ace Abner, 62, of Odessa, Texas, wiry and "mean as a snake," as Petrus describes him.

"Ole Ace could whip four of you, any of you," Petrus said. "I know I wouldn't mess with him."