When Flood Comes to the Museum of Fire

Those of you that are avid readers of our blog will have realised by now that this week’s piece is coming to you much later than normal, but we have a very good reason why.

A very met Museum of Fire (March 2021)
A very wet Museum of Fire (March 2021)

As everyone no doubt knows, Penrith; where the Museum is located, faced a flood warning, the likes of which had not been seen in over fifty years. The last time Penrith saw the waters rise like this was in November 1961 when half of the area’s average annual rainfall fell in just two days.

Despite the rising tide, our weekend team turned up to work as normal on Sunday only to find their path was blocked. Water had closed Castlereagh Road under the new railway bridge and our team had to make their way around to the Museum’s back gate.

The team made a valiant effort and opened the Museum to the public but as the day continued and more evacuation orders were issued the Museum found itself included in a flood warning. It was at this point, around 1:30pm, that we made the call to close the Museum for the day and the team got busy preparing the Museum for any eventuality.

While our team never expected to receive a flood warning the Museum’s heritage collection (those items not on display at least) are located high up in the building so there was no cause for concern. The potential damage to the Museum’s shop stock, digital assets and administration files presented a real threat, so everything had to be moved to higher ground.

Most of the Museum’s displays are high enough off the ground that our curatorial team were not worried about loss however our large heritage vehicle collection was well and truly grounded. So, what do you do with over 60 heritage vehicles, all that are located on the ground?

We could not lift them (obviously) and any attempt to move them, even just the really special ones, would have been an act of sheer folly. The Museum was the safest place for these vehicles to be. If the Museum flooded the vehicles would get wet but for the most part, it would be only the tyres and possibly some of the framework close the ground. If we attempted to remove the vehicles, they would have been exposed to greater danger. Not only do these vehicles require specialist drivers but many of them have open cabs so the possibility of damage was increased.

Our Museum mascot Duke inspects the Museum grounds on Sunday 21st March 2021
Our Museum mascot Duke inspects the Museum grounds on Sunday 21st March 2021

In the end all we could do was wait and hope. Many of those further afield who did not have local knowledge were only hearing what was on the news and so many panicked phone calls and emails were received. At the end of the day our team agreed that it is better to be safe than sorry.

The building that houses the Museum is heritage listed and unfortunately due to its age we have many areas that are vulnerable to flooding, especially during an intense storm. Knowing where to prepare proved valuable as the Museum’s team were able to concentrate their efforts on known flooding locations and by doing so prevented extra damage from occurring overnight.

When morning dawned on Monday the rain was not slowing and the road was still closed but the Museum was relatively dry inside. Unfortunately, I found that my path to the Museum was cut-off due to flooded roads so thankfully I had prepared for the possibility of working from home for a few days.

With tensions high in the community and Penrith still in a vulnerable state, we made the decision to remain closed on Monday and Tuesday. Those that could still make it to the Museum did so and worked behind the scenes to prepare for our upcoming events and to return the Museum to its usual state.

Nepean River in 1961. Photo: Penrith City Library
Nepean River in 1961. Photo: Penrith City Library

When the sun came out on Tuesday afternoon everyone breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Our grounds were still inundated and flooded which meant that the training activities scheduled to take place by Fire and Rescue NSW had to be put on hold to stop any further damage to our grounds or bogging of their vehicles. We also lost a number of group bookings not just from the days we closed the Museum but also for the remainder of the week, as those from outside of Sydney made the decision to avoid Penrith.