Recovering fire-damaged records

In the aftermath of a fire you need to move quickly, decisively and knowledgeably in order to save as much as can be saved. This advice is designed to provide the sort of information you need to properly handle the recovery process.

If you have had a fire in your home or record storage area, you have a number of problems. You will most likely have a quantity of charred, sooty and fragile material. There may also be a lot of wet material: most fires are put out with water, either from overhead sprinklers, hose reels or fire trucks. The presence of water further complicates an already difficult recovery operation.

Who can help?

The post-fire recovery procedure may be beyond your available resources or expertise, but there are two ways you can seek help. For Australian Government agencies, the first is to contact the National Archives for assistance. We have experience and resources that can be provided to assist in the recovery of fire damaged record material. For members of the public, the National Archives is available to provide advice and direct you to appropriate commercially available resources should you feel that you cannot handle the recovery process alone.

Types of commercial resources available are conservation businesses and disaster response firms, both of which offer a range of services and can be brought in at short notice to assist with, or even run, the recovery process. The cost of recovery may be covered by your insurance policy.

What to expect when fire has affected your records

After a fire, there are several types of damage you may encounter, including items that are:

  • completely burned and beyond salvage
  • partially burned, but dry
  • partially burned, but wet
  • smoke or soot damaged
  • unburned but wet
  • physically damaged from the fire fighting effort
  • simply heat affected.

Any material in the first category – that has been turned black by the fire – is generally past help. It is usually so weak as to fall apart with the slightest handling and has often lost any information it carried. Unfortunately there is no easy way to bring this back. In extreme cases carbonised images can sometimes be read using special forensic techniques, but these are very expensive and difficult to source.

Apart from the first category, it is likely that some or all of the material in the other categories may be salvageable. Just how much can be salvaged depends largely on how the recovery process is handled.

Priorities

In planning a salvage operation, consider your priorities. Time and effort are precious and should only be directed at material that warrants them. Concentrate your salvage effort on material of high value. Material of little value should be placed to one side until the irreplaceable material has been dealt with. Damaged material that can be easily replaced (eg paperback books) can often be thrown away, allowing you to deal with the more important material. If you own or are responsible for the material, you are well-placed to make value judgements such as these, or at least know whom to ask. However, if unsure, the National Archives may be approached for advice.

How much time do you have?

In the aftermath of a fire, particularly one where water has been used to put the flames out, a rapid response is of prime importance. However, you need to proceed in a careful and unhurried fashion to minimise further damage.

Probably the greatest risk to the remaining material after the fire has been put out is water. Water is extremely dangerous for records. In the short term it can cause inks to run and material to adhere together. In the longer term it can lead to the growth of mould, which greatly endangers the records and is also a health hazard for persons working with the material. Mould will grow on most materials – it just requires warmth, high humidity, still air and time. The first three of these are generally prevalent in a site which has had a fire through it. Under these conditions mould will start growing on wet material within about two or three days, so immediate action needs to be taken to avert the danger of mould growth.

It is important to quickly dry the material out – ways of doing this for different materials are covered below.

How to salvage different types of material after a fire

Loose paper

Do not try to separate individual sheets when they are still very wet. Interleave stacks of pages every 2 cm with paper towelling, or sandwich small piles of papers between pieces of towelling. Once this towelling gets wet, it needs to be changed and thrown away. If towelling isn't available other papers such as blotting paper, butcher's paper, newsprint or even photocopy paper are acceptable alternatives. Remove the wet waste from the area you are using to dry your material as it will contribute to high moisture levels in the room and slow down the drying process. A fan and/or an open window in the room gently moving the air around will also speed up the drying process.

As you replace the wet towelling, put the new towelling in a different place in the pile of papers – this will remove the water from the pile more evenly. As the pages start to dry out, the paper regains some strength, and individual pages can be separated. Working from the least burnt edge, use a blunt knife (like a butter knife) to lift the edge along its length. Once you have enough to hold on to, pull it back and lay it over a cardboard roll, eg the core from your roll of paper towel. This will support the fragile edge as you lift the page off the wet stack. Watch all the edges as you lift to avoid tearing. Once you have the page free, lay it out flat on absorbent paper and leave it to dry completely. You will probably need to change the paper it is laying on, as it takes up moisture from the page. Keep repeating this process until you have used all your available workspace.

Leave the pages spread out until they are completely dry, then stack them and start the separating process all over again.

Papers that are dry but affected by soot should be dealt with once the wet material is under control.

Using a soft brush (such as a Hake brush available from art supply stores) brush the loose debris off the papers into a vacuum cleaner nozzle which has had a piece of stocking or fine gauze secured over the end with a rubber band. Open up the vent on the nozzle to reduce the suction and make it gentler.

Soot can be picked off paper by rolling a piece of kneadable eraser across the surface. These are available from art supply shops. Charred paper will not cope with this much pressure, so avoid these areas.

However, portions of your material may well be in such a fragile state that they cannot be easily separated for drying. If the fire was extensive, you may not be able to deal with all affected material in time to avoid mould growth, particularly if the affected area is very warm and damp.

If you feel you can't attend to the material within a couple of days, wet paper material can be safely frozen and recovered later. Wrap flat bundles of papers (no more than 1–2 cm in thickness) in greaseproof paper and put them flat in a regular domestic freezer. Once you have the time and the space, you can take them out bit-by-bit and dry them. Do not freeze magnetic media such as cassettes and floppy disks.

Books

Do not try and close books that have fallen open and become wet. The paper will have expanded and if the book is closed, the spine may break under pressure. To dry wet books that are open, lay them out on absorbent paper and insert paper towelling about every 50 pages to begin taking up moisture. Proceed from here as per the instructions for the stack of paper. Books that are closed should be stood on absorbent paper, on their bottom edges and fanned open. Separate a few pages at a time, as they begin to dry out and regain strength.

Books can be frozen and attended to later. Each book should be wrapped in greaseproof paper and placed in a domestic freezer. Books that are open should be laid in the freezer horizontally, on their backs. Books that are closed, but wet, should be wrapped and stood in the freezer vertically, resting on the spine.

Books with glossy, coated papers, eg large format picture books, have a low recovery rate as the pages permanently stick together when they become wet and then start to dry. If it is possible to replace the book, do so, rather than trying to salvage it. If you need to salvage the book, freeze it as soon as possible.

When you are ready, defrost the book, separate the pages while they are still wet and interleave them with greaseproof paper or baking paper.

To remove soot from dry books, refer to the instructions for paper above.

Photographs

Black and white photographs can be kept wet in cold, clean water until there is time to separate and dry them all individually. They can be kept this way for up to 48 hours and still be salvageable. When you are ready, remove bundles of prints from the water, and gently separate each print.

Colour photographs need to be separated and dried immediately or the dyes that make up the image may begin to run. Other photographic media – colour and black-and-white negatives, transparencies and glass negatives are also too vulnerable to be left wet for long periods. These should also be carefully separated and dried.

If there is not the time or space to immediately dry wet photographs, both colour and black-and-white photographs can be frozen provided they are first separated and are interleaved with greaseproof paper before being frozen.

Transparencies in glass mounts need to be removed from the mounts, as they won't dry behind the glass.

Once the photograph, negatives and transparencies have been separated, they can be pegged on an inside 'clothes line made of nylon fishing line, or similar material, to air dry. Otherwise the photographs can be laid out to dry individually, face up, on absorbent paper. Photographs may tend to curl a little as they dry but this is unavoidable. If, on drying, the photographs curl to an extreme degree contact the National Archives for advice on how best to flatten them out.

Photographs that have been affected by heat and water and allowed to dry out, may have stuck together to form blocks of prints. These can sometimes (but not always) be separated by gently popping them apart with a small spatula or blunt knife inserted between each print. This is most likely to work with modern, resin-coated papers. Older prints on fibre-based papers will not respond as well, and you may not be able to salvage them.

To remove soot from photographs refer to the instructions for paper above.

Framed works of art

If the glass is intact, the object inside the frame may not have suffered too much damage. When you have the time and the space, unframe the item and open the mount if possible, to allow the item to air dry. If the item is adhered between the mount boards, don't try and separate it yourself – seek the advice of a qualified conservator. Contact the National Archives for a list of approved professionals.

Paintings with a layer of soot over their surface should be cleaned by a qualified conservator.

If the surface of the painting is wet, don't wipe or blot the surface. Remove the painting from the frame, but not its stretcher. Lay the painting flat, face up and allow it to air dry.

Video and audio cassettes

If tapes can be replaced, don't worry about trying to salvage them. If the tapes are irreplaceable, it may be possible to salvage them. If the tape has been wet, first wipe dry the outside of the casing, then inspect the cassette to see if water has penetrated to the inside. If it has, undo the screws holding the halves of the outer casing and open up the cassette. Then very gently blot the edge of the tape pack and leave the tape to air-dry. Reassemble the cassette and copy the tape as soon as possible. It may not be possible to ascertain for sure whether moisture has penetrated to the inside of the cassette. In such cases it would be wise to open up the casing and let it air dry for a few hours before putting it back together.

If the cassettes are warped from heat exposure, it may be possible to transfer the tape and reels to a new cassette. Seek advice from the National Archives before attempting this.

CDs

Do not salvage CDs that are easily replaced. Wipe the CD case dry and clean and then open it up. If the CD inside is dry and clean, leave it to air for a couple of hours, and then return it to the case. If it is wet or dirty, gently rinse the CD in clean water and stand it vertically to air dry. If necessary, blot dry with a lint free cloth – do not wipe the disk, as you may scratch the track.

Glossy paper CD inserts need to be treated as for glossy paper books – either freeze them immediately or separate each page, interleave and dry immediately.

If the CDs are warped from heat exposure, they may not be salvageable.

Long-term preservation of fire-affected paper and photographic material

Once you have separated, dried and cleaned your papers and photographs they will often still be in a fragile state. Heat weakens paper based materials even if your papers aren't actually charred they will have lost some strength. Proper storage will be necessary to minimise further damage. Any flexing should be avoided and items may have to be placed in individual sleeves to avoid mechanical damage. There may be steps a qualified conservator can take to help restore some strength to a weakened or charred document, but it will never be as strong as it was originally and what has been charred is lost forever.

It is further recommended that you consider making copies of the affected material – if you want the information to survive in the long term. Papers can be copied on a photocopier unless they are so weakened that pushing them onto a plate will cause further damage. In such cases it would be best to copy using a camera. Photographs can be copied on a digital scanner, unless the fire has distorted them, in which case they may also be copied using a camera.

Pre-emptive preservation

There are a number of things you can do before the fact that will help minimise the loss of valuable material in the event of a fire.

  • Purchase a fire-rated cabinet for storage, bearing in mind that these aren't very effective in major fires – they can act like an oven, rather than providing protection.
  • Ensure that copies of your prized material are kept in another location. For example, if you have a private collection of family photos, you could scan them to disk and give copies of the disk to family members.

Further advice

Contact the Agency Service Centre. Although we cannot generally offer direct assistance in the event of a flood, we can give professional advice and direct you to suitable private companies that specialise in disaster recovery, as well as private conservators who can help preserve the damaged material.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2016