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50 years ago - Department Store in Parkes gets hit with two fires in one year

Howards Department Store (later renamed Mates Department Store) had a rough year in 1973, with two fires causing considerable damage.

Howards Department Store Suffers $50K in Damages, April 1973

The first fire occurred on 11 April 1973 when a fire broke out in the basement of the store which housed electrical motors that provided the store’s refrigeration. The store employees attempted to extinguish the blaze before alerting the fire brigade at 5:40pm. The fire quickly spread throughout the stock and took out the telephone lines. Inspector W. Herbert with Captain A. Northey and nine firefighters from Parkes quickly took the Dennis D pumper to the scene as heavy smoke poured from the two floors at the back of the building. In took the brigade 30 minutes to contain the fire with their initial attack being the most crucial. They ran collector lines from hydrants and 1 ½ inch hose from the first aid tank, and from here two delivery lines could then be used to hit the blazing areas from inside and outside the department store. Once the fire was under control, waves of thick smoke continued to roll out of the heat shattered windows while the smoldering merchandise kept the firefighters busy inside the store for another two and a half hours. The store manager, Mr. J. O’Donnell, was grateful for the efficiency of the Brigade and praised their tireless efforts. The total damage Howards Department Store suffered was $50,000 (approximately $530,416 today).

Smoke can be seen coming from Howards Department Store, April 1973 (Museum of Fire Collection)

Mates Department Store Fire, 28 October 1973

Mates fire in Parkes, 28 October 1973 (Museum of Fire collection)

Just six months later the same department store, now called Mates, suffered another disastrous fire this time completely destroying the building and severely damaging the adjoining Commonwealth Bank building. On 28 October 1973 a fire broke out in the same spot as back in April, and within minutes the fire had spread rapidly in the open interior of the two-floor emporium which was filled with combustible products and no sprinkler system. At 9:44am Parkes Fire Station received the call with Captain Northey and nine firefighters and the Dennis D motor arriving on scene to witness thick smoke pouring out of the rear ground and first-floor windows. Two delivery lines from hydrant collectors concentrated water through rear openings while a further two lines from hydrants attacked at the shop’s front. Inspector C. Rose joined the attack by taking the rear lines and firefighters into the back of Mates and endeavoured to hit the fire at two levels. However, due to the intense heat and smoke they were forced to withdraw. Realising the potential of the fire, Inspector Rose sent for crews from the neighbouring town of Forbes and requested further assistance from the Parkes Rescue Squad. After attempting another attack from inside the building, Captain Northey and his firefighters had to retreat due to the ongoing intense heat and smoke.

By this point the fire had engulfed the entire building and soon after the firefighters had retreated from the building the roof structure collapsed. This, combined with the high wind created an immediate risk to the adjoining Commonwealth Bank building with flames gripping the upper-level of the bank. This shifted the firefighters focus from the engulfed Mates building to protecting the adjoining bank premises. Crews from Forbes sent a line of hose up a ladder and through the bank’s first-floor window, while crews from Parkes concentrated one of their line of hose on the rear of the exposure. On the other side of Mates, Forbes Brigade also threw up a water deluge to protect adjoining exposed premises. After the initial two-hour battle the fire was under control but Mates was still burning fiercely with explosions of cans of flammable substances continuing for hours. At midday one particular explosion caused debris to rain down on firefighters and citizens. Almost 10 hours later at 8pm water saturation was effective. The $1 million (approximately $10 million today) was bravely extinguished by Parkes and Forbes Brigades, who saved many other premises in the block from destruction.

This aftermath of the Mates fire, ironically the same site as Howards, 28 October 1973 (Museum of Fire collection)

-Story by Museum of Fire Heritage Team


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