Monday, 11 May 2015

Sugar Shed Fire, 1963

A spectacular fire that burned for nearly five days at the Townsville Bulk Sugar Terminal in May 1963 caused £6 million worth of damage and revolutionised the Queensland Fire Service.  It was dubbed the most disastrous fire in Queensland’s history at the time, and was the most expensive fire in the history of Australian insurance.
Firefighters attending the sugar shed fire, Townsville, May 1963.
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

The fire broke out around 8pm and was reported by a Harbour Board night watchman on the jetty wharf, who saw what he thought was a light burning inside the sugar shed.

The storage facility, built only a few years earlier measured 1,000 foot, and housed a mountain of raw sugar 500 foot long by 150 foot wide and standing at 90 foot high. At the time of the fire, the 77,500 tons of sugar stored in the shed had been sold to Japan and was awaiting export.

As the fire took hold thick smoke blanketed the city and a sticky, molasses-like mixture that was three inches deep, poured out of the interior of the shed, much of it spilling into the harbour.

The Townsville Daily Bulletin told of the valiant efforts of the local firemen.

“It’s hell in there. The heat near the sugar stack is tremendous,” Townsville fireman Alex Bull said.

The acting Chief of the Townsville Fire Brigade, Mr Eric Potter, worked non-stop from the time the fire broke out on the night of Thursday, 9 May, until 2.30pm on Saturday, 11 May.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of local fire fighters – which included civilian, RAAF and Army fire fighters – the sheer intensity of the blaze meant that reinforcements were crucial.  Fire tenders were brought from the Ayr-Brandon Fire Brigade and the Ingham Fire Brigade, and a visiting United States destroyer, the USS Somers offered 15 crewmen and the use of three pumps to help control the fire. 
Hosing down after the fire at the Townsville Bulk Sugar Terminal, May 1963.
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

The Harbour Board tug Lalor was pressed into service and pumped 1,500 gallons of seawater a minute into the fire at one end of the sugar shed.  The Townsville Regional Electricity Board (TREB) provided one of its circulating pumps at the Ross Creek intake works, which pumped over 16,500 gallons of water per minute for the fire fighting effort. Teams of volunteer firefighters came from the Inkerman, Kalamia and Pioneer mills.
Damage to the Townsville Bulk Sugar Terminal, caused by the fire, May 1963.
Photo:  Christensen Collection, held by CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

But when fire-fighting units from Cairns, Innisfail and Proserpine arrived to assist, they found that their hose and pump fittings weren’t compatible with the equipment in Townsville and they lost valuable time re-fitting all of their connectors.

After the fire at Townsville, fire authorities throughout Queensland worked towards standardising all fire equipment in the state and fire fighting equipment was installed in sugar storage terminals in the hope that such a disaster would never be repeated.

Authorities blamed the catastrophe on inadequate planning.

“The fundamental reason why the fire burnt for so long and at such cost was the thought among sugar people that the sugar would not burn,” Brisbane’s Fire Chief, Mr George Healy said.

“There was not one single fire precaution in the whole of the terminal,” he said.

“The problem basically was that no one thought any precautions were necessary”.

“They spent an enormous amount of money proofing that terminal against cyclones, and did not spend a penny protecting it against fire”.


  1. I was there, as an 8 year old. Dad worked for Evans Deakin at the time, and stayed on to help. He had to fabricate a manifold for fire fighting equipment.

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment. Must have been an exciting night for an 8 year old. I'm told the burning sugar gave off a really dreadful smell?

    2. My dad was there fighting the fire with the Lions Club,before this they thought fire wouldn't combust . I would have helped but I was putting out my own fire in my dippers , ? I was !! 2 HA