Conservation advice: Fire damaged memorabilia: advice for bushfire victims

This information has been provided by Memorial conservation staff to help those affected by the recent bushfires.


Disaster Recovery has four principal phases:

  • Disaster Response
  • Salvage Operations
  • Reconstruction
  • Disaster Recovery Assessment.

DISASTERS are unusual events that have resulted in injury, property or collection damage, or in the disruption of normal services. A disaster is characterized by the need to institute plans for the salvage and subsequent repair or replacement of property or objects.

If the disaster required the evacuation of the building or neighborhood in which it occurred, only Emergency Services personnel are permitted in that location until the Emergency Services’ Chief hands control of the site back over to its owners. The site should be inspected by an appropriately qualified person ensure that it is physically safe for re-entry. After the site inspector has given the site the “All Clear” for safety, the emergency may be considered to be over, and people may be permitted to re-enter affected areas to commence salvage and clean-up operations.

Disaster Response

Disaster Response is the reaction to, and the elimination of, the emergency (fire, storm water or burst pipe flooding, plant or equipment malfunction, chemical spill, building collapse, earthquake, etc.). After containment and elimination of the emergency, the Salvage Team’s first task is to assess the degree and type of damage incurred and to plan the Salvage Operations. Insurance companies should be contacted at this point.

Salvage Operations

Salvage Operations commence after the Emergency Services Chiefs have handed control of the site back to the owners and the site’s safety has been confirmed. The aim of Salvage Operations is to identify, safely remove, and subsequently clean, repair and/or preserve the remains of objects of high sentimental or monetary value.

Salvage Operations continue on-site until all objects affected by the emergency, and deemed as worthy of salvage, have been removed for storage and treatment. When all items have been removed from the site, reconstruction or building repair can commence.

Salvage Operations continue off-site until the treatment of all salvaged items has been completed. Salvage may overlap with the third phase, Reconstruction.


Reconstruction begins when all salvageable materials have been removed from the site, and the site has been cleared of all remaining rubble and other materials. Reconstruction ends when every salvageable item is back in its normal location, and non-salvageable but replaceable items have been replaced.

Disaster Recovery Assessment

Disaster Recovery Assessment begins as Salvage Operations on-site end. Disaster Recovery Assessment should cover the full range of Recovery Activities: Disaster Response, Salvage Operations, Reconstruction, and even the Assessment process itself.

The aim of Disaster Recovery Assessment is to identify all the factors which contributed to the disaster, to recognize which activities or procedures helped to minimize danger and damage during or after the disaster and the salvage operations, which activities or procedures were ineffective in minimizing danger and damage during or after the disaster and the salvage operations, where improvements could be made in preventing and reacting to a similar occurrence in the future.

Disaster Recovery Assessment ends after comments and procedures to improve Disaster Response and Recovery have been incorporated as normal working procedures and responses.


The overriding principles for all Salvage Operations are:

  • Human safety has precedence over protection and/or removal of objects, including items of tremendous personal or monetary significance.
  • The directives of the Emergency Services personnel (who are legally required to take authority in an emergency) are to be obeyed.


  • Identify the cause and extent of the damage.

    1. The four principal causes of damage to collection items are water, physical force, fire, and exposure to chemicals. Water and physical forces are the most frequent and the most likely causes of collection damage. Rain, floods, broken sewerage or water pipes, and accidentally triggered fire-sprinkler systems are common causes of water damage. Faulty construction techniques and structural failure through poor design or earthquake are common causes of physical damage. Items may suffer more than one type of damage at a time, e.g. fire, water, and physical.
    2. In the case of structural failure due to fire, flooding, earthquake, or the collapse of a building or a display / storage structure, ensure that the structural safety of all elements of the salvage site have been checked and cleared by a consultant engineer.
    3. In the case of chemical damage, identify the chemical, its toxicity, and signs of adverse human reactions to it. Identify all possible reaction products of the chemical, their toxicity, and signs of adverse human reaction to them.
  • Ensure that the environment and structural safety of the building infrastructure has been stabilized before salvage operations commence.

  • If the cause of the disaster was weather-related, contact the Bureau of Meteorology for a local weather forecast for the next 24 hours. Salvage Operations should not commence in the same conditions which caused the disaster.

  • Identify suitable locations for the storage of objects recovered from the disaster site.

  • Assess the character and degree of damage to objects.

  • Ensure that all members of Salvage Teams have been issued with and are wearing appropriate protective clothing and equipment: stout boots or shoes to prevent puncture wounds from broken glass and metal fragments; protective gloves; a wide-brimmed hat for work outdoors; a face mask for dust protection; overalls or loose clothing (long-sleeved shirts and trousers) for dust protection.

  • If there is any chance that the site is contaminated with asbestos, have a professional asbestos removal firm inspect the site prior to beginning salvage work there. If these experts determine that there is asbestos on the site, follow their advice with regard to access to the site and / or the use of breathing apparatus to prevent the inhalation of asbestos fibres.

  • Ensure that each member of the Salvage Team is aware of the team’s responsibilities in the salvage operation and of how their team will work in conjunction with the other teams.

  • Ensure that each member of the Salvage Team has been told, or issued with, lists of objects they should be looking for in their search area. Each member of the Salvage Team should be given a sketch or plans of the contents and layout of rooms in which they will be working.

  • Plan to clear room entrances and aisles first. Unless priorities determine otherwise, begin work from the nearest access point, i.e. work from the doorways inwards.

  • Ensure that all the members of each salvage team are familiar with how to use all the salvage equipment from zip-lock plastic bags through to crates & tables.


  • Wear all protective clothing and equipment issued for use whenever you are on the disaster-affected site.

  • Follow the team leader’s instructions, utilizing the sketched floor plans to identify and confirm the correct sequence of salvage.

  • Do not attempt to wipe water, building rubble, dirt, ash, soot, chemicals, or chemical by-products off objects.

  • Do not ever stack salvaged items on the floor or in large piles because this will increase the possibility of physical damage.

  • In cases of water damage: Be aware that wet paper will swell and is both heavier and more fragile than dry paper. As soon as possible, therefore, create room on the bookshelves or drawers being cleared by removing some items to ease the pressure and facilitate eventual removal. Do not try to open or close a wet book, photograph album or file of papers.

  • In cases of water damage: Remove the wettest material first, followed by less wet, and then damp. Flooded floors will soak objects stored on the floor. Burst pipes may wet items on upper shelves first. Clear wettest items first, then work from the top down to remove remaining objects from shelves.

  • In cases of water damage: Do not use staples, paper clips, felt-tip pens, ink pens, coloured paper, or adhesive tape on wet materials.

Salvage of Water-Damaged Collections

This chart is a ready reference table on recovery priorities and handling and packing procedures for a wide the variety of materials.
(Summarised from Betty Walsh, Salvage at a Glance, WAAC Newsletter.)

Material Procedures
Manuscripts, documents and small drawings Freeze or dry within 48 hours.
Don't separate single sheets.
Interleave between sheets of clean, dry paper and pack in milk crates or shallow cardboard boxes.
Air or freeze dry.
Watercolors, and other soluble media Immediately freeze if air or freeze drying cannot occur within 48 hours.
Do not blot.
Interleave between sheets of clean, dry paper and pack in milk crates or shallow cardboard boxes. Air or freeze dry.
Map, oversize prints and manuscripts Freeze or dry within 48 hours.
Don't separate single sheets.
Pack in map drawers, bread trays, flat boxes or polythene covered plywood. Air or freeze dry.
Coated papers Immediately pack, then freeze or freeze dry within 48 hours.
Keep wet in containers lined with garbage bags.
Freeze dry only.
Framed prints and drawings Freeze or air dry within 48 hours.
Remove frame and mat if possible. Air or freeze dry, then pack as for manuscripts or maps above.
Material Procedures
Books and pamphlets Freeze or dry within 48 hours.
Do not open or close, do not separate covers.
Separate with freezer paper, pack spine down in milk crate or cardboard box.
Air or freeze dry.
Leather and vellum bindings Immediately freeze.
Do not open or close, do not separate covers.
Separate with freezer paper, pack spine down in milk crate or cardboard box.
Air or freeze dry.
Books and periodicals with coated papers Immediately pack. Freeze or dry within 48 hours
Do not open or close, do not separate covers
Keep wet; pack spine down in containers lined with garbage bags
Freeze dry only .
Material Procedures
Paintings Immediately dry.
Drain and carry horizontally.
Pack face up without touching paint layer.
Air dry.
Material Procedures
Floppy Diskettes Immediately pack.
Do not touch diskette surface with bare hands.
Contact supplier for best packing method.
Contact supplier for best drying method.
Material Procedures
Discs Dry within 48 hours. Freezing is untested: if it is necessary, freeze at above 0°F (-18°C).
Hold discs by their edges. Avoid vibration and shocks.
Pack vertically in foam-padded plastic crates.
Air dry.
Sound and videotapes Freezing is untested; if necessary, freeze at above –10°C
Pack vertically into plastic crates or cardboard cartons.
Don't put any heavy weight on the sides of reels or cassettes.
Air dry.
Material Procedures
Wet Collodion photographs (ambrotypes, tintypes, pannotypes, wet collodion negatives) Recovery rate is low. Immediately dry.
Handle with care--glass supports or glazing.
Pack horizontally in padded container.
Air dry face up. Never freeze.
Immediately dry.
Handle with care -- usually cased behind glass.
Pack horizontally in padded container.
Air dry face up.
Nitrates with soluble emulsions
Immediately freeze.
Do not blot.
Air dry.
Prints, negatives, and transparencies

Freeze or dry within 72 hours.
Salvage order:

  1. color photographs
  2. prints
  3. negatives and transparencies

Do not touch emulsions with bare hands. Handle negatives along the edges only.

Keep in cold water. Pack in containers lined with garbage bags.

Order of preference for drying:

  1. air dry
  2. thaw and air dry
  3. freeze dry
Motion Pictures Rewash and dry within 72 hours
Fill film cans with cold water and pack in plastic pails or cardboard cartons lined with garbage bags
Arrange for film processor to rewash and dry
Material Procedures
Leather, Hair
May be extremely fragile: provide full support beneath.
Rinse and sponge, drain and blot, separate to avoid bleeding of colour.
Begin air drying within 48 hours but do not allow to dry quickly or without control.
Buckskins, tawed leathers etc May be extremely fragile and fastenings may tear through the skin; support. Rinse and sponge, drain and blot, separate to avoid bleeding of colour.
Begin air drying within 48 hours but do not allow to dry quickly or without control.
Parchment Immediately freeze or dry.
Interleave flat.
Tension dry to retain dimensions.
Material Procedures
Textiles Handle carefully with full support beneath, as wet fabrics are very fragile.
Air dry small quantities by slowly and gently blotting saturated areas.
Freeze large quantities. Separate these items with waxed or freezer paper when packing them for freezing.
Some fabrics may need to be tension dried to retain dimensions.
Material Procedures
Glazed items Beware of repairs coming apart.
Completely wrap each object or part of an object separately, but bag all the pieces together.
Unglazed items
Beware of repairs coming apart.
Wash off as soon as possible or if muddy, allow to dry, then brush off with a soft brush.
Completely wrap each object or part of an object separately, but bag all the pieces together.
Painted unglazed items Beware of repairs coming apart.
Do not wash; dry as is, very carefully, brush off with a soft brush.
Completely wrap each object or part of an object separately, but bag all the pieces together.
Material Procedures
Solid wood pieces Blot dry.
If the water has not penetrated (e.g. on polished furniture wet for only a few minutes) then it can be left to air dry without covering
If the water has soaked in (e.g. if it has been lying in water for several hours) then wrap in clean cloth or paper to slow down the rate of drying which could lead to cracking and warping.
If there is an oily layer, keep underwater while removing the floating oil layer with a wet vacuum before lifting the object out.
If the water is just dusty or non-oily dirt then rinse off before following instructions as for clean water.
Veneered pieces Same as for wood
If there are iron or steel fittings which will rust quickly it may be necessary to dry these out as quickly as possible to prevent staining.
This will require specialist conservation advice.
Upholstered pieces Same as for wood
May be extremely fragile and fastenings may tear through the fabric.
This will require specialist conservation advice.
Material Procedures
Iron and Steel If the flood water is reasonably clean, remove the object from the water and dry it off with a dry cloth or air dry
The conservator who will make the decision as to what treatment is appropriate may specify dewatering fluids. Inappropriate treatments will damage any painted surfaces.
Copper alloys: (brass, bronzes) As above though unpainted copper alloys are not affected by flash rusting and can be dried by blotting with clean, lint free cloths and blotters or with fans.
Lead and zinc As above but special care must be taken because these metals are very dense and thus heavy yet they can be damaged because their surfaces can be easily scratched and their shapes deformed.
Metals in general: Do not place metal objects affected by disasters in touch with one another (different metals in contact with each other promote corrosion).
Try to speed drying by using dehumidifiers in the affected rooms.

Salvage of Fire-Damaged Collections

In some instances, areas involved in a fire may require a week or longer before they are cool enough to be entered.

Smoke damaged materials

Place items affected by smoke into the largest volume of moving air that you can find. This will dispel most lingering odours.

Conservators can remove a light film of smoke deposits with Drychem chemical sponges or soft brushing and then use the above odour reducing procedure.

Charred materials - dry

The worst charring will be noticed higher up. Little can be done for badly damaged paintings, textiles, and paper items. Charred materials should be handled gently as they are very fragile. Where possible they should be placed between cardboard sheets or in cardboard boxes and wrapped in clean, unprinted paper for protection.

It is important to be sure that charred items are totally dry before they are packed to prevent mould development. If in doubt, and if possible, allow items to air-dry in a stable environment for a week before packing. Burnt material may be housed in protective enclosures until treatment is available.

Charred materials - wet

Charred materials that are wet are exceedingly fragile. Handling must be done with extreme care. Often extra support is necessary. Sturdy cardboard, polyester film or tubs can assist in supporting materials while the collections are moved to the freezer or to dry storage. (See above, Instructions for handling water-damaged items.)