Parkes firefighters saved Parkes from being wiped out in May 1983 fire

The year was 1983.

A time when the Parkes Shire was in drought (from 1981 until early 1983), when Parkes’ water reticulation system was in poor condition and mobile phones didn’t exist in Australia yet.

A number of firefighters from the Parkes Fire Brigade were in their young 30s, married with young children.

At 9.03am on May 23, 1983 these firefighters responded to a “000” call that would ultimately change their lives forever.

A rail tanker loaded with 33,000 litres of petrol at the Mobil Depot in East Street in Parkes had ignited in close proximity of millions of litres of more petrol, threatening not only the lives of the firefighters fighting to control and extinguish the blaze but the lives of the entire town.

Firefighters had just six drums of foam, very little water, just three hoses and, with no mobile phones, had to run to the station to communicate with other brigades.

Coincidentally firefighters had revision training on using fire fighting foam and how to extinguish burning petrol tankers two weeks before the fire.

Don Jewell was one of just eight Parkes firefighters – who are now in their mid 60s and 70s – who attended the fire that day.

I am incredibly proud to be part of that team, a group of ordinary blokes who pulled off an extraordinary deed.

Don Jewell

He was invited to attend a Parkes Rotary Club gathering last August to talk about his experience and the historic events that took place that day.

It was the first time in 34 years Don had spoken publicly about what he described as a traumatic day.

So well received was his presentation to Rotary, he was invited to speak at Parkes Shire Council’s first meeting back in the new year on January 16. 

“I had to bring it all back to the front of my mind...and hopefully after this I can push it all to the back again,” he said prior to his presentation at the meeting.

“It (the Rotary presentation) brought back a lot of memories and the support has been very much appreciated.”

Don spoke about the moments and impacts leading up to the fire, how the turning point was when Forbes firefighters arrived with more resources and the outcomes following the emergency – of which included council upgrading its water system and foam being stored at the depots.

Unfortunately a de-briefing of the blaze that was planned a week later never eventuated.

“This will never happen again,” he said.

“It’s unique, it’s the only one that happened in Australia.

“Were we seconds or minutes away [from a catastrophic explosion]? Fortunately we’ll never know.

“But what I do know is ...[we] most certainly saved the town. I am incredibly proud to be part of that team, a group of ordinary blokes who pulled off an extraordinary deed.”

Mayor Ken Keith thanked Don and said council was looking at ways they can recognise the event at a higher level.

“Time gets away but if we don’t tell these stories and don’t record what exactly happened, no one would know that we would of had to rebuild the whole town,” Cr Keith said.

“I never realised how close that was. I just thought it was a really bad fuel fire.

“I’m hoping we can recognise that in some way.”

Parkes firefighters Roger Larsen, Graham Dixon and Robert Tinker and their families – as well as the daughter of the fire captain Gordon Northey and wife of engine driver Rodney Bradley, Adrienne Bradley – were also present during the presentation at the council meeting.

As was retired policeman, who was also present at the fire, Brian Drabsch.

Don has shared his recollection of the day here.