Grace Information Management Blog

History is littered with tragic fires that have destroyed thousands of irreplaceable archives and records both here and overseas.

Some have been caused by electrical failures, others deliberately lit and a handful from natural disasters. With bush fire season now upon us, it’s important to understand the damage fire can cause to records and how to avoid it.

Some of the worst fires in history

  • April 26, 2013 – Fire gutted a section of the roof of The National Library of Wales as the result of an error by workers using a blowtorch. Some 140 crates of material were badly damaged including three boxes of 19th Century chapel records from Carmarthen and papers relating to Welsh football and the Wales Green Party.
  • August 14, 2010 – Arsonists attack Liverpool Council in Sydney’s south-west resulting in thousands of council applications and permits being destroyed.
  • 1994 – An explosion in the transformer at a Melbourne SEC substation caused fires in tanks. Melbourne City Archives was located on the floor above. While the fire did not spread to the Archives, soot and smoke did, affecting 25,000 rolled plans, and plans in 139 plan cabinets.
  • July 12, 1973 – A disastrous fire at the US National Personnel Records Center destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files.

The true cost

Fires which start in records storerooms or libraries usually result in far more damage to the contents than those started in other areas because of the high concentration of combustible material. Damage is not only caused by the fire itself but also the water used to extinguish the flames.

According to the UNESCO report, Main principles of fire protection in libraries and archives: A RAMP study, fires in libraries and archives cause two types of damage: material loss of the collections and the building; and social damage.

“For the most part the contents of most buildings are replaceable by equally serviceable and attractive furnishings. Archives, on the other hand, cannot be replaced. Once they have been destroyed, they are lost forever,” the report states.

“For the loss of irreplaceable information, there is no remedy, only the untold damage to society caused by its loss.”

Similarly, the loss of business records can have tragic consequences with seven out of 10 small firms that experience a major data loss going out of business within a year (DTI/PricewaterhouseCoopers).

The clean up

According to the National Archives of Australia:

“In the aftermath of a fire you need to move quickly, decisively and knowledgeably in order to save as much as can be saved.”

Before starting any salvage operation it’s important to prioritise the most valuable information. Concentrate your salvage effort on material of high value. If records are replaceable or no longer of any value, toss them immediately.

If there are records you wish to save, the National Library of Australia recommends the following action:

  • Assume all fire damaged material is fragile and handle as little as possible during the retrieval and recovery process
  • Wrap fire damaged books in clean unprinted paper or freezer paper and place between cardboard sheets for protection. Clearly label all packages.
  • Burned and wet books should be frozen for later treatment.

Moving forward

The cost of restoring records and books damaged in fire is substantially greater than what would be spent to store the materials under the best fire protection conditions.

At Grace Records Management, our storage facilities are state of the art. All our locations incorporate extensive fire protection systems and are equipped with dry-pipe sprinkler systems and sophisticated fire alarms linked to local Fire Brigades. Extinguishers and sprinkler systems are tested weekly and fully maintained in line with international standards. In addition, in the majority of our national sites, VESDA – Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus – constantly takes samples of the air to check for smoke content. Our media storage rooms are also alarmed and monitored 24-hours a day and the walls, floors and ceilings boast a fire rating of four hours.

If you have valuable records you can’t afford to replace, consider storing them with Grace Records Management for added security during the fire season.