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50 Years Ago - John Fairfax & Sons Major Fire (9.2.1971)

It was 50 years ago today that a fire swept through the main bulk newsprint storage for John Fairfax & Sons in Jones Street, Pyrmont.

The walls collapse, 9 Feb 1971

Not only were 34,000 reels of newsprint lost to the flames, but the concrete block building was also completely destroyed in what was to become a largescale and lengthy firefighting operation.

At 2:07pm on 9 February 1971, New South Wales Fire Brigade (NSWFB) Headquarters Control received the report of a fire on Jones Street, Pyrmont. When the responding brigades from Glebe and Pyrmont arrived on the scene, they were confronted with a 134,000 sq ft building fully involved in fire. It housed the main newsprint bulk storage for John Fairfax & Sons (Sun-Herald newspapers); which provided ample fuel for the flames. According to the manager onsite, the fire began on the top layer of stored newsprint and quickly spread to grip the whole building within three to four minutes. It is believed that the rate of the spread was accelerated due to a fine layer of coal dust settling on the roof trusses and stored paper from a nearby coal washing plant. However, this theory has never been confirmed as all physical evidence was destroyed.

The newsprint building ablaze, 9 Feb 1971

As the severity of the fire became known, further support was requested and the initial two-station response was increased to a strength of twelve stations. Within the space of nineteen minutes from the first alarm, Acting Chief Officer D. C. O. Meeve, two Superintendents and the duty Inspector were also on the scene. Even with the quick response by all personnel involved, the fire moved faster, engulfing the entire building in just fifteen minutes. With the roof off and a wall collapsed, the decision was made to direct firefighting efforts towards the containment of the fire and protection of adjoining premises.

An organised crash attack saw three sides of the building surrounded and struck with a concentrated flow of water from monitors and large branches. As the fourth side faced out towards Blackwattle Bay, it was inaccessible to jets but the two fire boats Bennelong and Boray were able to use their powerful pumps to direct water from this side. As the building covered such a large area, water jets were unable to reach its centre, but firefighters continued to work tirelessly to gain control. In total, 24 appliances (including the two fire boats), 70 firefighters and 21 officers were involved in the nine-hour operation. Finally, at 11:07pm, the situation was said to be under control.

Despite this there was still much to be done to ensure the incredibly hot fire was dampened to a safe level. Six motors were ordered to remain on the fireground until the fire within the building was successfully extinguished. After three days of pumping and firefighting efforts, fire duty was implemented from 12 February until 23 February. Estimates of fire damage were placed at $4 million (worth close to $44.8 million as calculated today).

The aftermath of the devastating fire, 1971

-Story by Museum of Fire Heritage Team


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