Hoarder Homes: Considerations for Fighting Fires in High Content/Reduced Air Space Homes

Hoarding outside a home

Heaps of contents outside homes may be indicative of a possible hoarder home situation. Photo via Stroz on Wikimedia Commons.

By Brady Deal

Firefighters are encountering more and more homes that have a fuel load beyond that of a typical American household. These days, members must contend with homes filled to the ceiling with content, obstructing pathways to their operational areas. Frequently used as storage areas, it has been common for basements to have heavy fuel loads, but now we are seeing an influx of homes where the main living areas are stacked beyond capacity.

Recognizing these homes may not be an easy task. A quick 360º of the outside of the home may reveal tons of items stacked in garages and around the exterior, offering a clue that the inside may mimic the outside. Alternately, a home may present as nice and clean on the outside but is a total catastrophe inside. Homeowners associations usually have strict requirements for maintenance of property exteriors, which may make it very hard to initially identify a reduced air space fire.

Once a high-content fire is identified, call for additional units and/or a second alarm (review your departments guidelines). These fires have a totally different dynamic than that of an ordinary structure fire. Having extra personnel available is paramount. Salvage and overhaul will probably be the most taxing operations and will require crews to use techniques not ordinarily deployed under normal conditions.

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Once you have identified a high-content fire and additional resources are en route, determine the most suitable mode of attack. To do this, we must look into the dynamics of a fuel-rich/oxygen-deficient fire and how these fires are different from the standard residential structure fire.

Although it is still a residential structure fire at the core, the reduced air supply in proportion to the heavy fuel load and limited mobility in the structure turns the situation into an entirely different beast. The most important differences in a reduced air space fire compared to routine residential fires are excessive fuel loading; limited mobility; crews’ inability to gain access to the seat of the fire; an inability to conduct searches; ventilation-limited situations; issues with nozzle/hoseline selection; and overhaul.

Reduced Air Space

When a home has contents that are stacked halfway to the ceiling, it reduces the air pace. This in turn reduces the time it takes for the compartment (room) to reach flashover.

With today’s lightweight construction of homes and the wide variety of materials being used for fabrics and furnishings, operational times have reduced considerably when compared to conventional (normal fuel load) fires from that of 15-20 years ago. Couple this with 10 times the fuel load and reduced time for flashover and you have a recipe for disaster.

When contents are stacked four feet high in a compartment (room) with an eight-foot ceiling, you have effectively cut the air space in half. The top of the contents now basically becomes your floor (which is four feet higher than normal). Because you only have this reduced air space, the space will heat to its flashpoint much faster.

Think about doing a settee in the burn building. Do you remember the different stages of fire growth and holding your hand up to feel the thermal layer slowly drop as the compartment heated? Now imagine filling that burn building up with as much random junk of all shapes and sizes until you have half the height of the ceiling. With the new parameters, burn the settee again in the reduced air space. Imagine how quickly you will feel the thermal layer in that scenario versus the normal open uncluttered burn. This visualization should help open your eyes to how fast the flashpoint will be hit.

Firefighters are already flirting with flashover times today because of new building construction materials and contents and our average response times. Make sure to keep the reduced air space in mind when doing your initial size up and 360º survey regarding your mode of attack.

Ventilation-Limited Situations

In addition to the reduced air space issue, we can also encounter a vent-limited issue. If the space is packed almost to the ceiling, we may encounter the challenge of the space limiting the amount of oxygen the fire has to continue combustion. It could easily deplete the oxygen in the compartment and go into a smoldering phase quickly, setting up a backdraft situation. As always, be alert and look for backdraft signs, especially in a known hoarder house or a home that shows signs of limited air space.

Conventional horizontal ventilation may be ineffective because of the contents inside the home are blocking the flow path of natural or forced ventilation. These houses may be good candidates for vertical ventilation if identified early and the location of the seat of the fire is known.

“Reading smoke” or normal smoke diagnosis may not be applicable in these situations as the compartment is full of contents, reducing flow path. Keep in mind the structure may pressurize very quickly, thus forcing smoke into areas that may or may not be involved, such as attic spaces, voids, and other areas not involved in fire.

Fuel Load and Limited Mobility

The fuel load in a hoarder home can be as much as 10 times or greater than that of an average home. This is challenging even without adding fire into the scenario. If you have ever had to get a “person down” out of a hoarder house during an EMS call, you will know what I am speaking of. The sheer amount of contents in the house eliminates the ability to roll a stretcher inside the house to operate and get the patient out. In my experiences, we have had to use a cloth bariatric-type patient mover just to get the patient out of the house because a backboard or stretcher simply was not feasible. Add in smoke and fire and you have an almost impossible scenario.  Additional resources and personnel are a must.

Moving hoselines throughout the structure is going to be extremely challenging to say the least. A lot of added personnel will be required to move hoselines through the structure once the fire has been brought under control and a tenable atmosphere has been achieved.

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Nozzle and Hose Selection

These fires are reaching their flash point much faster than traditional fires and will require a properly sized and placed fire stream to get the temperatures down as quickly as possible. Limited mobility when it comes to pulling hoses through the structure to reach the seat of the fire makes a smooth bore nozzle fit the bill nicely. Its added reach, higher gpms, and penetration make a smooth bore the nozzle of choice. Getting enough gpms into the thermal layer will be key in reducing the chance of flashover.

The traditional 1 ¾-inch hoseline may not allow the needed fire flow required to reduce the heat in the compartment in quick succession. A 2- 2 ½-inch hose with a smooth bore will be more beneficial in reducing these temperatures quickly.

During an interior attack, if you are putting water into thermal layer and not getting a rain-down of water back on you, you need a larger hoseline or need to change to a larger tip. If water is not raining back down, the fire’s Btus are too great for the amount of gpms being delivered. Back out of the structure and change hoseline size, tip size, or go defensive if the fire has progressed beyond your capabilities.

Operational Modes

After reading about the challenges you will be faced with, hopefully during your initial size-up you will be armed with some knowledge that helps determine what mode of attack is best suited for the situation that presents itself.

Transitional attack would be the method I would consider first, as we have read about how quickly the compartment absorbs heat because of the reduced air space and the chance of a vent-limited fire and possible backdraft. Hopefully a 360º survey will indicate where the seat of the fire is located and which way the fire is progressing.

A good positioned blitz attack or a 2.5-inch handline deployed from the exterior of the structure may quickly impede the progression and eliminate flashover and backdraft situations. This should be done in coordination with a manned interior attack line in place and ready to go once an initial knockdown has been obtained. This will give an interior team enough time to make it through the clutter and identify the seat of the fire before the fire starts to gain headway again. It’s imperative to have at least double the rapid intervention resources on hand in case a rescue situation arises, thus reconfirming the importance of calling for additional resources as early as possible.

A defensive operation is the other choice. If the structure is remotely close to defensive level for a normal non-limited airspace home, use a defensive approach. Do not attempt a transitional attack.

Departments with limited resources and personnel may want to consider the Defensive Attack mode first and foremost. A hoarder house is taxing on even large departments with large amounts of personnel and resources. Err on the side of caution every time when battling fire in reduced air space structures. When in doubt, go defensive.

Salvage and Overhaul

Salvage and overhaul will be extremely challenging. The initial knockdown may come easy, but then the real labor-intensive work will begin.

This is one area that will benefit greatly from the early call of additional resources. Make plans for rotating personnel out frequently as these crews will tire easily. Enforce air management and accountability.

Be mindful of the added weight of water-absorbed contents, and its increased live load on structural elements. Remember, the structure was already above normal capacity. Watch for signs of collapse. Take precautions, such as cutting small drain holes in the floor with a chainsaw or pickhead ax to reduce the chance of collapse.

Yes, there will be tons of contents to remove from the building, but from my experience the majority of the contents do not catch fire. The top layer generally takes the brunt of the fire and the contents that are stacked below generally are not burning. Remove the top layer and get it outside quickly to reduce the number of hotspots there will be to extinguish. Be prepared for flare-ups as piles of contents are carried out of the structure. Large wheeled garbage cans are excellent for removing contents. Be careful not to bury smoldering contents, which may start an exterior fire.

New techniques may be needed to remove the contents. Think of cutting open walls in key areas to access items. A nearby window can be easily made into a doorway by cutting down to the floor on both sides of the window opening. Be creative about access to remove excess debris.

Some of these homes may be infested with vermin and insects. Swarms of roaches may be found when carrying out contents. If an infestation is encountered, tape up firefighters’ pants legs and check pockets frequently. Gear must be decontaminated and cleaned before returning to the truck or station. Roaches and bedbugs could become stowaways in pockets or in the layers of turnout gear and be brought back to your stations and homes. Clean your gear!

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Hoarder homes are not just a fire department problem. Start fostering a cooperative relationship with support agencies. Some of the agencies that could be beneficial are listed below:

  • Division of aging services
  • Department of family and child services
  • Public works/heavy equipment
  • Solid waste for dumpsters and disposal
  • Animal control
  • Public health department

Take the time to know your territory. Identify the potential presence of hoarder homes. While out conducting driver training, hydrant maintenance, and the like, be cognizant of homes with lots of items stacked and piled up on the property, as these may be indicators of hoarder homes. When you notice or come in contact with one of these homes, it’s good practice to have your dispatch to flag the location. If you do get a fire at one of these residences, you will already be ahead of the game if you can get those additional resources en route.

Brady Deal

Brady Deal is a captain with Rockdale County (GA) Fire Rescue (RCFR), a medium-sized Metro Atlanta department, where he has served for 18 years. He is president of the RCFR Fraternal Order of Firefighters Association. He specializes in pump operations and teaches NPQ Fire Apparatus Operator Classes abroad.

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