Firefighters Praised For Saving Rare Botannical Collection

Aug 8, 2017

Last week, a fire broke out at the historic Torrey Hall on the University of Vermont campus.  The building houses the third-largest collection of botanical specimens in New England.  Scientists from across the world are praising the Burlington Fire Department for saving the majority of the collection.

More than 300,000 historic and rare plant specimens were housed on the top floor of Torrey Hall, which was gutted by flames on Aug. 3.  Researchers thought that the heat and water would destroy the herbarium.
But several factors interceded to save most of the collection.  In 2014 the college received a $470,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to purchase cabinets designed to protect against fire and water damage.  When firefighters entered the building they also covered the cabinets to further protect the Pringle Herbarium.  Burlington Deputy Fire Chief Peter Brown:  “The fire never actually reached the area where the collections were except one end. On the south end of the building the fire did come through a window and a few of the items on top of the cabinets were on fire and a few items down low. Very minimal fire actually inside the building.  This fire was on the outside of the building  and it went the entire distance all four sides of the building and three different void areas around the building.”

The fire department’s Facebook page has received numerous messages from scientists across the country thanking it for its efforts to save the herbarium.  Oregon Flora Project Director Dr. Stephen Meyers echoes many messages of praise.  “The collections contained in that herbarium, as are contained in most old herbaria around the country or around the world for that matter, they contain generally the first collections for any geographic area, the collections made by the first botanical scientists. And as such those collections are invaluable not only from a historical standpoint but also they’ve locked in time a history of what the plants were doing during that period of time.”

New York Botannical Garden Vice President for Science and Herbarium Director Barbara Thiers is astounded that the fire department saved collection.   “They did a heroic job of protecting the specimens.  It’s almost unbelievable to me after having sat and watched stupefied by the footage that there wasn’t more lost.   I couldn’t even I couldn’t imagine that that could happen. So they get tremendous credit for taking care of the collection.”

Deputy Chief Brown says they were doing their job.  “Our job is life, safety and property conservation.  And a big piece of that in this case was putting up some tarps and trying to save whatever was in the cabinets. We certainly appreciate the praise but we do it because we enjoy what we do and that’s the job.”

Meyers says what the firefighters did will have a profound impact on scientists and researchers.  “It’s not just a dusty collection that occasionally someone comes by and glances at. People work in these herbaria every single day.  The collections are being used. They’re part of ongoing research and that’s not going to end.”

The Fleming Museum on the UVM campus has given the herbarium access to its large Marble Court to spread out wet specimens to dry. Staff from the UVM Libraries will help determine how to rescue and restore the wet materials.