National Archives of Australia

Issue 8 October 2012

Know your enemy: archives go up in smoke

The threat of fire is one of a conservator’s worst nightmares – the potential for damage to irreplaceable archives is enormous. So why did Archives conservators stand by and watch files, photos and artworks go up in smoke? As Archives conservator Ian Batterham explains, it was all in the name of protecting the Archives’ collection.

On a crisp sunny August morning, a crew of Archives employees and fire officers gathered at the ACT Emergency Services Agency (ESA) training facility at Hume. We were all there to burn things – and learn.

The threat of fire is a significant concern for the Archives. The best way to be prepared is to ‘know your enemy’, so we had set up a fire simulation with the help of the ESA. We wanted first-hand experience of the effects of fire on an archive and to gather information about how to protect our collection from fire. The ESA were also interested in learning the best way to tackle fires affecting valuable heritage material.

The Archives is, of course, prepared for fire. We have Very Early Smoke Detection Alarm (VESDA) systems and sprinklers in our buildings. We also have a network of fire wardens in place, ready to deal with fire emergencies should they arise.

But we can never assume we are immune from the dangers of fire. Systems can fail, and fire can catch you unaware – for example, when workmen have to disable sprinklers to carry out maintenance. Even with a functioning VESDA and sprinklers a fire can develop to a dangerous and damaging level before these systems kick in.

A fire does not have to be big or established to cause damage. Audiovisual materials, for example, are very vulnerable to smoke and heat, so even a small fire near such materials can lead to damage and loss of information.

The Archives has had some close calls over the years. In 2003, bushfires threatened our Tuggeranong building, and more recently, in September 2011, there was a major chemical fire near our Mitchell building in the ACT.

Charred papers. Photographer: Jennifer Everart

Lighting the fire

All of this led us to a freezing compound in Hume on that August morning.

We had many questions we hoped the exercise would answer. What is the best storage box – corrugated cardboard, polypropylene or fluted plastic? Is metal or wooden shelving preferable? What protection do filing cabinet and plan drawers provide from fire? Are plastic, metal or cardboard enclosures best for motion picture film? Is it better for files in a box to be tightly or loosely packed?

Conservator Ian Batterham and ESA officers setting up the surrogate archive. Photographer: Jennifer Everart

We needed sacrificial materials to be ‘surrogates’ or ‘analogues’ – stunt doubles, if you like – for the real material held by the Archives. We needed files and photographs, negatives and books, cine films and artworks, as well as a range of storage furniture such as metal and wooden shelving and a filing cabinet. So we scavenged through old furniture at the Archives, as well as begging and borrowing from sister institutions. We also made numerous visits to Tiny’s Green Shed in Mitchell, a refuse recycling centre where old books, videos and furniture can be bought cheaply.

With our surrogate archive assembled, we moved everything to the ESA facility and set it up inside a shipping container. ESA officers wearing protective apparatus set the fire, and then filmed the results using a thermal camera.

The early stages of the fire. Photographer: Jennifer Everart

The fire grew very quickly. After only three-and-a-half minutes we felt the fire had progressed sufficiently and the ESA officers moved in to put it out. Even in this short time a lot of damage was done.

The ESA officers used a highly ‘surgical’ approach to put the fire out, using water mist to target the hot spots. With this approach the entire fire was extinguished using only five or six litres of water. As a result, objects were only slightly damp – much easier to deal with than the sodden material that is often found in the aftermath of a fire.

The aftermath of the fire. Photographer: Jennifer Everart

Assessing the damage

We had ‘before and after’ photographs of all the items in the shipping container to help us assess the level of damage and to compare the protection offered by different storage containers and materials.

The exercise confirmed that plastics used in boxes, folders and film cans all melt rapidly in a fire – and once melted they offer little protection for the contents. Corrugated cardboard boxes char in a fire, but essentially sacrifice themselves to protect the contents, and tightly packed material survives fire better than loosely packed material.

Another important finding was that some plastics give off a brown oily material when heated, which could pose a health risk to people and a danger to delicate material such as magnetic tape.

Ian Batterham inspects the damage to material in a filing cabinet. Photographer: Jennifer Everart

This information will help us make future storage decisions and plan the design of our new storage facility in Canberra. The ESA also learnt a lot about putting out fires affecting valuable and fragile material, using very little water and causing minimal damage.

The Archives and ESA are considering another burn exercise to learn even more about safeguarding the precious records in the Archives’ collection.

The Archives thanks Commander Mark Phillips, Station Officer Matthew Mavity and Fire Officer Anthony Walker from the ESA.

Want more?

Read more about the work of Archives conservators in our preservation blog

Find out more about recovering fire-damaged records

3 comments on "Know your enemy: archives go up in smoke"

  1. Paul Bridges says:

    Important article. I prefer compressed cardboard boxes as corrugated cardboard is a perfect home for silverfish. Any chance of answering the questions first posed in the article?
    Is metal or wooden shelving preferable? What protection do filing cabinet and plan drawers provide from fire?

  2. Cathy Hawes says:

    Can you comment on the protection offered by the metal filing cabinet?

  3. Your Memento | National Archives of Australia says:

    Good questions, Cathy and Paul! According to Ian:

    Corrugated cardboard vs compressed cardboard:
    Corrugated board is preferred because it acts as an insulator – the flutes and the air they contain provide buffering of environmental changes in the same way as batts do in your roof and walls.
    In the event of a flood or fire, corrugated board is a good water trap, pulling water away from the contents in a ‘wicking’ effect. Compressed cardboard does not do this as well.

    Metal vs wooden shelving:
    Unfortunately our wooden shelving failed due to the plastic clips holding up the shelves melting causing the shelves to fall out. So I cannot answer this one. Anecdotal evidence from colleagues suggests wood is better because it does not conduct heat and in burning protects the material on the shelving.

    Effectiveness of filing cabinets and plan cabinets:
    Both metal filing cabinets and metal plan cabinets provided considerable protection for their contents. A wooden filing cabinet was also tested and fared somewhat better than the metal one. What this tells us is: the more enclosures the better, and wood seems to be better than metal. Metal did fine, though.

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