Parkes firefighters recall the May 1983 fuel depot fire

Parkes Fire Brigade of 1983

On May 23 it will be 35 years since the highly dangerous fire at the Mobil Depot in East Street in Parkes. While many years have past, the fire is still very fresh in the minds of those firefighters present on the day.

At the January meeting of the Parkes Shire Council, past Firefighter Don Jewell along with Robert Tinker, Graham Dixon and Roger Larsen relived the day that almost destroyed a very large section of Parkes.

A rail tanker loaded with 33,000 litres of petrol was being decanted into fuel storage tanks at the Mobil Depot when depot operator Kevin Burridge noticed the tanker was on fire about 9am.

After a 000 call to Parkes Fire Brigade, Captain Gordon Northey – plus nine firefighters – arrived on the scene to find the tanker totally enveloped in fire with flames leaping six to eight metres in the air.

The brigade immediately set to work by applying AFFF (fire fighting foam) to the northern side of the tanker.

Avgas petroleum, a highly volatile product, was stored in large quantity in 205 litre drums in a shed about a metre from the flames. Firemen immediately started cooling these drums to prevent them exploding.

A second firefighting hose was set up on the southern (Medlyn Street) side of the tanker to cool it down.

This type of fire is called a BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Evaporating Vapour Explosion) which is a highly dangerous fire. The tanker is super heated by a fire, this created enormous pressure inside the tanker – the end result is an explosion where fuel and shrapnel from the tanker spreading over hundreds of metres.

In the case of the Mobil Depot – with a series of many other depots and fuel storages within close proximity (one million litres within 100m and two million litres within 250m) – the chain reaction would have been catastrophic.

Parkes Fire Brigade fought the blaze with very little resources.

Water pressure was so poor that it was lucky to supply one hose let alone three.

Foam stocks were very limited with more stock coming from Parkes Airport and Bogan Gate Army Camp.

Firefighting strength was at eight men with one policeman present.

The order to evacuate Parkes came early in the fire but as the situation worsened the evacuation area widened.

A second rail car was parked behind the tanker involved in the fire. One firefighter put himself in greater danger, braving the flames to disconnect the tanker, allowing rail staff to take it away.

As the fire worsened, the situation was critical.

The order was given for firefighters to evacuate but no one left, instead choosing to give the fire their very best shot.

The turning point in the fire came with the arrival of Forbes Fire Brigade. Their fire engine was set to work in Clarinda Street, pumping water to the Parkes fire engine. This increased both the pressure and volume to the three lines being used to attack the fire. As well, with the use of Forbes foam branch, additional foam was applied to the southern side of the tanker.

Despite huge quantities of water being applied to keep the tanker cool and to stop metal fatigue, after three and a half hours of intense heat the tanker started breaking up. Pop rivets (about 20mm in the shaft diameter) which held the sheet steel in place, started popping. The situation was now highly critical.   

Firefighting efforts continued...

The two brigades eventually won the battle about 12.30pm.

Cooling operations continued for several hours to prevent re-ignition.

Parkes Fire Brigade with the help of the Forbes Fire Brigade had pulled off the impossible.

The town was safe.

These firemen put their lives on the line.

Without this total team commitment, the memories of this day would be of a major catastrophe and the majority of the town in mourning.

“The reality was that on the day you couldn’t have got a better team of blokes to work together to achieve a positive result in what looked to be an absolutely impossible task,” Don said.

9:03am 23 May 1983

Parkes Fire Brigade responds to a “000” call to Mobile Depot, East Street

Parkes Fire Brigade members in attendance for total of this fire:

Captain Gordon Northey.

Rodney Bradley (engine keeper).

Robert Tinker (firefighter) “TINK”.

Graham Dixon (firefighter) “DICKO”.

Roger Larsen (firefighter).

Graham Thompson (firefighter) “THOMO”.

Robert McDonald (firefighter) “SCOTTY”.

Don Jewell (firefighter).

Bruce Shanks and John Ashcroft came but could not stay.