Oily rags put waka in danger

MUSEUM FIRE: Seven fire crews rushed to the Hamilton City Council-run museum on Grantham St on Sunday night.
MUSEUM FIRE: Seven fire crews rushed to the Hamilton City Council-run museum on Grantham St on Sunday night.

The restoration of a priceless, 200-year-old waka at Waikato Museum nearly led to its destruction when the linseed oil-soaked rags being used in the project burst into flames.

Seven fire crews from around the region rushed to the Hamilton City Council-run museum on Grantham St after the rags spontaneously combusted on Sunday night.

Fire doors and the sprinkling system contained the fire to the room and only minimal smoke leaked out.

The sprinklers were only activated in the room where the waka was.

The waka, Te Winika, was given to the museum by Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu in 1973 as a gesture of fellowship and goodwill to the city.

It was last restored in the 1930s by a team of carvers led by Piri Poutapu after being buried in mud for 70 years.

Fire Service Waikato area commander Roy Breeze said an investigation suggested the rags, used in the latest round of restoration, had caught fire.

"Linseed-oiled rags left covered up, given the right conditions, can spontaneously ignite."

He said linseed oil could ignite at room temperature if rags were covered up in a compact space.

Breeze praised the museum's fire system preventing the fire from spreading to other sections .

Firefighters arrived at the scene just four minutes after being alerted and the blaze was out by 9.30pm.

Hamilton City Council community manager Lance Vervoort said the restoration work was four weeks out from being completed.

A council investigation had found there was no damage to the waka, although carved wall hangings in the room had received minor damage.

He did not know when Te Winika would be opened to the public again.

The museum and its collections were being assessed for smoke damage, which was "isolated to one part of the museum," Vervoort said.

The museum was open yesterday with the fire-affected area screened off.

"The key thing is we have the carvers on site, they're just assessing what's happened," Vervoort said.

"What we have to do going forward is to reinstate, essentially, the carvings on

the wall which have had some damage and another carving associated with the waka. But I need to reiterate the waka itself is fine."

Museum staff were contacting contributors including Trust Waikato to tell them their collections were fine.

Vervoort said the the building and all collections were covered by insurance that included smoke and water damage.

The carvers and the staff were "distraught" about the accident and were pulling together to ensure everything ran smoothly, he said.

"We have staff showing up today and we have a bunch of people showing up . . . who will be working through the night. Everyone is committed to getting things back to how it should be as quickly as possible."

A full review of what occurred will be undertaken at the earliest opportunity.

"We will carry out a full review of what's happened here and anything we need to change around protocols around doing work in the galleries we will make the appropriate changes to minimise this in the future," Vervoort said.

Hamilton City Council kaumatua and Kingitanga representative Tame Pokaia said he needed more information about the state of the carvings before updating Maori King Tuheitia Paki.

"It was quickly explained to me by phone that the damage was minimal and the waka hull was all intact, so I was really pleased to hear that."

Pokaia said the incident had highlighted areas the restorers may look at doing differently, but said there were limited options other than doing it in the museum.

"We are dealing with a big piece here, it's not something you can pick up and take to the work shed. We've got two options; take the roof off, or take the glass out and get the crane to take it out or do the best we can in there."

Previous restorer Poutapu, who had a carving school at Turangawaewae Marae, researched Waikato carving styles and carved the bow, figurehead, sternpost and sides.

Waikato Times