Massachusetts Fire Officials Discuss Danger of Hoarding

The day after a raging fire killed a 43-year-old man and destroyed his Scituate home, the muddy grass outside was littered with blue and green plastic storage tubs amid empty beer cans and wicker baskets, reports wcvb.com.

Other belongings lay nearby, heaped in piles and encased in ice, the Patriot Ledger reported.

Fire officials said the clutter had filled much of the home and kept firefighters from getting inside to fight the fire and rescue the man, who was eventually pulled unconscious through a window and pronounced dead at a hospital. Officials in Scituate said they already knew that the residents had a problem with hoarding and had been working to help them.

But people who work with so-called hoarders on the South Shore say the compulsion to collect and save objects of little value in huge quantities is the symptom of a psychological condition and can be very difficult to treat, even with the help of therapists and support groups.

Hoarding can be dangerous both for the hoarders and for those who may have to help them in an emergency.

“It’s a huge issue,” said Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the State Fire Marshal’s Office. “It gets it very dangerous for firefighters because they can get trapped and entangled.”

Investigators determined that the Scituate fire started in the electrical wiring above the first floor ceiling.

Mieth said that what her office calls “excessive clutter” is a factor in many of the fires that departments respond to in Massachusetts and is sometimes found to be the cause of the fires. She said some people with hoarding problems may take unsafe steps to stay warm, like using an oven or too many space heaters with electrical cords, because they’re too ashamed to allow someone in to fix a furnace or help with other maintenance.

Last month, a Westfield man died in a fire that was eventually blamed on a portable electric heater that was left too close to other objects in his cluttered home. And in 2012, firefighters in Wayland said they weren’t able to get to a man who died in a fire because of the condition of his home, which had no water or sewer service.

Mieth said hoarding makes firefighting more difficult and dangerous in several ways. The clutter, which often includes books and paper, becomes fuel for fires, and firefighters may become lost among the piles of stuff as rooms fill with smoke and visibility is reduced. If a firefighter can’t find his hose to lead him out of a building, other firefighters may have to be sent in to get him.

“That’s when firefighters get hurt,” said Braintree Fire Chief James O’Brien. “That’s when you see multiple lives lost.”

O’Brien said his firefighters encountered a dangerous hoarding situation about a month ago when a fire broke out in a home filled with propane, ammunition and other flammable material. No one was home at the time, but he said his firefighters would have been at risk if they had to attempt a rescue inside the cluttered building.

Growing recognition of the dangers of hoarding has led many Massachusetts communities to set up task forces that bring building and fire department officials together with mental health and social service agencies. MassHousing currently works with 25 local hoarding task forces in the state, including one in Scituate and another in Brockton that serves towns as far away as Hanover, Marshfield and Pembroke. Other communities, including Weymouth, have their own task forces as well.

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