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Protecting the container: Heritage Building Fire Safety

Filed under: archival practices,history,infrastructure — 2014-04-14 by Richard L. Hess — Last Edit 2014-04-14 by Richard L. Hess

While this post does not specifically pertain to audio tape restoration, it does pertain to keeping originals and copies safe, especially in heritage buildings.

This article is prompted by a devastating fire in Aurora, Ontario, Canada, where I have lived for the last 10 years and also from 1981-1983. On Friday, April 11th, there was some roofing work being done on the 135-year-old Aurora United Church. Roofers were using hot tar and allegedly some sort of open flame. Humidity is not high in the winter and we had a cold one. The church roof structure (and much of the ceiling structure of the nave) was wood. Hot tar, flame, low humidity, wind, and very dry old wood do not mix well, and the results, sadly, were predictable. The church is now a ruin. The fire department spent 4-5 hours with up to maybe 7-8 master streams running into the attic and other parts of the structure.


In an interview after most of the damage had been done, but the fire was still burning, the fire chief said it is almost impossible to save a church when the fire gets into the attic. There is no safe way for the fire fighters to get to the fire other than a defensive (exterior) position. I was not a member of this church, but many of our friends are. Mary Beth’s aunt and uncle were married in this church many years ago.

There are important records (many of which had yet been neither digitized nor copied), a recently refurbished Casavant pipe organ, a Yamaha grand piano, and many other items which were severely damaged or destroyed. All the new audio, video, and lighting equipment that had been installed during the 2009 renovation is gone, but that is perhaps the easiest to replace. Fortunately, I was holding a few reels of tapes from a private collection to digitize sometime in the future which would have ended up there. I’m glad I had other work delaying my doing that. One reel has been done and that includes former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson speaking in the now destroyed church during a major anniversary celebration in the 1960s. There is some hope that some of the records might have survived as there appear to be lightly damaged hymnals floating around the destroyed grand piano in the image below.


Building owners have the option to put a clause in their construction and renovation contracts to prohibit the use of any hot products by roofers or plumbers (or other trades) and I would strongly suggest that this be made part of every bid package before it is sent out. No open flames. No blowtorches. This result, sadly, is not uncommon. Just Google fires caused by roofers.

In New York City, a law was enacted in 1999 to outlaw this risky practice…especially over wood decks. In the present instance, there were reports of the roofers trying to put out a small fire, which apparently got away from them. Caution: the precise details are not known and I am relying on multiple, sometimes conflicting, news reports. I hope the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office investigates this case, as one CBC report has suggested they will.

How many more unnecessary losses do we need to endure before this practice is completely outlawed? Wood and flame do not mix. There are a wide variety of materials that do not need flame to work. Let’s use them. The overall cost to society, when the losses are factored in, should be lower.

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