Fire fears for museum

LOUISE BERWICK
Last updated 05:00 12/05/2014

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The Southland Museum and Art Gallery boss says the pyramid building in Invercargill will be a "goner" in a fire because its roof is made of cheap, flammable material.

Invercargill City Council building assets and museum manager Paul Horner holds grave fears for the museum if it catches fire because the roof is made of expanded polystyrene squashed between metal sheets.

"It's going to be a goner because they won't be able to extinguish it."

However, New Zealand Fire Service southern fire risk management officer Michael Cahill said it was unlikely fire would spread into the roof because of safeguards being put in place.

Horner said the roofing, installed in 1990, was in desperate need of replacement to ensure Southland's artefacts were kept as safe as possible.

"At the time it was a unique and innovative choice - it was light and relatively cheap to construct - as the museum is always strapped for cash," he said.

The issue adds to the woes the museum is already facing, with its upgrade being continually delayed.

Horner said replacing the roof with a fire retardant type of polystyrene would cost $2 million, and that had been budgeted for in the museum upgrade.

A new roof would also savemoney in the long term because the existing roof means the current insurance premiums are extremely high.

The Southland Museum and Art Gallery Trust had precautions in place to help reduce the risk of fire in the roof but they would not necessarily stop it from happening, Horner said.

It was hoped water sprinklers would stop a fire from spreading into the roof and there was annual testing on wiring near the roof to ensure it was safe, he said.

"It's only a problem if it gets into the sandwiched [metal sheets]."

The heat would cause the polystyrene to melt and that would also do a lot of damage, Horner said.

"It runs like a thick syrup ... it sticks on ... clothing and it keeps burning. It's toxic smoke, unpleasant, thick smoke."

Cahill agreed that a fire in the museum would be devastating but said it was unlikely to spread to the roof.

With sprinklers and smoke detectors installed in the building, it was likely a fire could be contained long enough for firefighters to get to the scene, he said.

He also believed the polystyrene had some level of resistance to fire but it would only slow the process down.

The two sheets of steel meant it would be hard to put out a fire in the roof but the fire service did not treat the fire risk of the building any differently because of the roofing material, he said.

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Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt said the council was aware of the fire hazard but he was more concerned about the toxic smoke that would be sent pouring through the city.

Now that the ILT Stadium Southland had been completed, the council could look at the museum development again and get things moving, Shadbolt said.

- The Southland Times

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