Up in flames: Dangers lie in the homes of hoarders

Kyle firefighters battled a mobile home blaze earlier this fall that required cutting a hole in the wall from the outside to reach the fire due to excessive debris and clutter. Fires in homes with an abundance of items stacked and piled throughout create additional dangers, both for those fighting the fire and those trapped inside. (Photo by Rick Beaman)

By KIM HILSENBECK

The holidays are here and that means the risk of home fires increases. But firefighters nationwide, as well as right here in Hays County, are dealing with a different fire risk year-round – hoarder fires.

Compulsive hoarding is defined as a psychological condition in which people accumulate but are unable to organize or discard possessions, and the clutter interferes with basic activities such as cooking, cleaning and sleeping in a bed.

Reality television shows such as A&E’s “Hoarders” and TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” have brought the condition to light, but the phenomenon is not new. According to recent research, hoarding affects about 4 percent of the population.

Sharon Gamache, program director for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) high-risk outreach programs, gives lectures nationally on how hoarding poses more hazards for firefighters.

“Hoarders collect myriad items. Often, these include newspapers, magazines, clothes, food containers and animals,” Gamache said. “So many combustibles make the fire burn hotter and faster. In addition, piled-high containers sometimes may impede the firefighter from getting in or out, or reduce the chance a resident can escape. It also may be more difficult to find the source of the fire, because it may be located beneath piles of paper or other items.”

Gamache said that more than 60 municipal task forces – comprised of city building inspectors, animal control officers, first responders, police and medical teams -– have sprung up around the country to deal with a problem that distresses families, angers neighbors, stymies public officials and frustrates therapists.

Deputy Fire Chief Rick Beaman with the Kyle Fire Department said his teams are regularly training to have situational awareness.

“We are now teaching that if any crew member on scene encounters an unsafe condition, unusual fire load or hazardous situation, they can actually stop, back out and/or change position and then inform command about the unsafe condition and what is being done about it,” Beaman said.

This tactic is different from past training, which required a firefighter to continue the work while trying to notify the incident commander and waiting for a decision.

Beaman continued, “We are trying to teach current and future firefighters not to blindly follow orders to the grave. If the situation is bad, speak up. Get on the radio and say it’s bad and get yourself out of there.”

Not long ago, Beaman said the department fought a blaze at a mobile home off Goforth Road that had several bedrooms packed floor-to-ceiling with stuff.

“It was so jammed in there, we actually overhauled the room from outside. It was easier to cut a hole in the exterior wall to get to the seat of the fire than it would have been digging all of the contents out from inside,” he said.

Buda Fire Department Chief Clay Huckaby said his crews have a Standard Operating Guideline, issued specifically for dilapidated structures and homes and buildings that have a heavy fire load because they are crammed with items; this would include hoarder homes. He said their training includes videos and discussions of situations that put firefighters at added risk from such structures.

“Once our crews arrive on scene and determine the building to be unsafe to enter, due to high fire load of items or a “trail” system to maneuver through, our standing order is to not enter the structure but to fight the fire through windows, door openings or by other means, from outside the structure,” Huckaby said.

While every fire is different, Huckaby said if someone were trapped inside, his crews would make a life-saving attempt to rescue that person or persons.  But the risks of rescue during a hoarder fire would be more dangerous to firefighters.

Kyle Police Chief Jeff Barnett said the area does not yet have a hoarder-home task force, although alerts in the dispatch system can let first responders know about potentially dangerous situations due to animals, cluttered homes and other factors.

Beaman said friends and family members of hoarders can help first responders.

“I think it is their responsibility to seek help for those that can’t help themselves. By getting help for a friend or family member that’s hoarding, they may also save the life of a rescuer without even knowing it,” he said.

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