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

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.

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