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Remember This?

Newcastle packing shed ravaged by fire

1973 inferno captured in photos by Journal reporter
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Journal archives photo

This John Trumbo photo from May 1973 shows firefighters keeping a hose on flames that would consume what was once the Pacific Fruit Exchange packing shed in Newcastle.

 

May 1973 was a hot one — 90 degrees by 3 p.m.

Workers at one of Newcastle’s biggest employers — Modular Homes Inc. — were still on the job at that time.

And then fire took hold in the former packing shed they were working in, starting in a small-scale maker of fiberglass canoes and boats and spreading quickly through timbers framing the behemoth sheet-metal structure.

Journal reporter John Trumbo was soon on the scene. You may recall Trumbo’s recollections earlier this year from another major emergency in Placer County from that time period — Roseville’s 1973 railyard explosions from a bomb-laden train.

He was johnny-on-the-spot again for the Newcastle fire, creating an album’s worth of photos that have sat in the Auburn Journal vault for the past 45 years — many of them printed but never published.

This photo is one of them. The never-before-published image you see today shows the fire at its height. Flames are roaring on the other side of the tracks as three firefighters struggle to keep a hose on the inferno.

It’s one of those time capsules the Journal has preserved. Notice the man in the middle. That’s a cigarette dangling in his mouth. And the volunteers of those days fought fires in whatever they came to the fire in. The man on the left with the 1970s sideburns has on a pair of moddish flares pants. They all have white T-shirts. Only one man has donned a protective helmet.

The building was a write-off once the smoke had cleared. It had been built 50 years earlier for the Pacific Fruit Exchange — one of many in Newcastle near the rail line that allowed the bounty of foothills plums and pears to be shipped on the Southern Pacific line.

The building was sold in 1961 to the Blue Goose Growers group and was in the process of being bought by the tenant, Modular Homes Inc. — a thriving business that was a major employer in Newcastle.

In a Journal account of the fire, on a double byline shared by Trumbo and Joe Carroll, readers learned that the fire spread so rapidly that workers were lucky to get out without injury. Explosions from volatile chemicals soon rocked the building and flames rose 100 feet in the air.

Undeterred, a Southern Pacific train rumbled through the fire scene.

And undeterred, Trumbo waded into the action to snap some telling shots for posterity.

Another Trumbo photo shows the train passing by as utility poles burned. Hoses were hauled off the track in time to let it pass.

And, indeed, in the photo in today’s “Remember This?” it appears that firefighters have retreated across one of the tracks.

Damage was $250,000 — a princely sum in those days before inflation took off. But there were no injuries and the fire was kept from spreading to adjoining homes and businesses by a crew of T-shirted volunteers, at least one puffing on a Winston in a straw hat amidst the smoke and flames.

‘Remember This?’ and Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.