Fire Safety Concerns with Hoarding
By Vice President / Lieutenant Scot Best
August 24, 2023

Many fire departments are experiencing serious fires, injuries, and deaths as the result of compulsive hoarding behavior. The excessive accumulation of materials in homes poses a significant threat to firefighters fighting fires and responding to other emergencies in these homes and to residents and neighbors. Hoarding can hinder you from getting out of a burning home and can hinder firefighters from getting in. Studies suggest that 3-5% of the population are compulsive hoarders.

Hoarding increases fire risks for residents and creates a danger for the fire service. Responding firefighters can be put at risk due to obstructed exits, falling objects, and excessive fire loading that can lead to collapse.

What is hoarding?
Hoarding is defined as collecting or keeping large amounts of various items in the home due to strong urges to save them or distress experienced when discarding them. Many rooms in the home are so filled with possessions that residents can no longer use the rooms as designed. The home is so overloaded with things that everyday living is compromised.

Why do people become hoarders?
Hoarding is a mental disorder that can be genetic in nature, triggered by traumatic events, or a symptom of another disorder, such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or dementia. Studies have found that hoarding usually begins in early adolescence and gets worse as a person ages. It is more common among older adults.

• Personal items can crowd cooking equipment, making it unsafe to cook.
• Personal items can crowd heating equipment, putting you at risk of having a fire.

Why is hoarding an issue for the fire service?
• Hoarding can be a fire hazard. Many occupants die in fires in these homes. Often, blocked exits prevent escape from the home. In addition, many people who are hoarding are injured when they trip over things or when materials fall on them.
• Blocked windows and doors make it difficult for firefighters to get into your home to fight the fire and search for occupants.
• Responding firefighters can be put at risk due to obstructed exits, falling objects, and excessive fire loading that can lead to collapse. Hoarding makes fighting fires and searching for occupants far more difficult.
• Piles of belongings make it difficult for firefighters to move through your home quickly.
• Those living adjacent to an occupied structure can be quickly affected when a fire occurs, due to excessive smoke and fire conditions.

When talking to a person who hoards:
• Be respectful and show concern for the person’s safety.
• Match the language of the person. If the person talks about their “collection” or their “things”, use that language. Avoid using derogatory terms, such as “junk”, “trash”, or “hoarding”.
• Show empathy by indicating that while you understand that your presence is upsetting for the person, some kind of change is necessary.
• Focus on safety issues, such as fires, fall hazards, and avalanche conditions. Note possible ignition sources or trip hazards and try to build support for addressing these issues instead of insisting on an immediate and overwhelming cleanup.
• Explain to always keep anything that can burn at least 3 feet away from cooking and heating equipment.
• Stress the importance of keeping doorways and windows clear for escape in case there is a fire. This will also prevent injuries from falling over excessive personal items.

Do you have a person in your life who may be a hoarder? In dealing with hoarding, help the person make a home safety and escape plan. Stress the importance of clear pathways and exits. Practice the plan often. Exit routes may change as new items are brought into the home. While in the residence, reinforce the importance of having working smoke alarms in the home and testing the alarms once a month.

Contact the Ridge VFD, or your local Fire Department, for advice on helping with hoarding. Site visits, safety planning, and smoke alarm installation are just a few things we can offer. Know the fire-safety risks and how you can keep yourself and first responders safe.