The Danger of Fire Incidents in Hoarding Households

At Hoarding Help Central, we recognize that there are a variety of dangers associated with hoarding behavior. Of these dangers, one of the most substantial is the threat of fire incidents caused by hoarding. In order to understand the danger of fire incidents in hoarding households, we must look at the data collected in regards to such incidents. Let’s discuss this data in order to identify the options available to reduce the risk of fire incidents in hoarding households.

What is Hoarding?

Before we take a detailed look at the danger of fire incidents in hoarding households, let’s define what hoarding is. In this way, we will be better able to understand why such behaviors pose a greater risk for fires. So what is hoarding? 

Hoarding involves the acquisition, and subsequent failure to discard of, large amounts of possessions. This results in the inability for the hoarder to perform daily activities and go about their day to day lives. Although there has been little dedicated research devoted to investigating the disorder’s causes, symptoms, and treatments, it has been shown that hoarding incurs a number of health and safety concerns that can even result in a loss of life.

Of the safety and health concerns posed by hoarding, the excessive accumulation of items such as food, trash, waste, and even animals can lead to the violation of important health codes, infestations, and even disease. At the same time, the limited mobility caused by blocked walkways in the household of a hoarder can pose a fire hazard, making it difficult for a burning residence to be evacuated quickly.

While the exact cause of hoarding is unknown, it has been often considered a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. This is due to the fact that over 25 percent of those suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder struggle with the compulsion to hoard. Of what we do know about the disorder, it can be said that hoarding is much more common amongst the elderly with the majority of hoarders being unmarried and living alone. Although the prevalence of this disorder is largely unknown, estimates do indicate that hoarding may affect between 0.25 percent and 3 percent of the adult population worldwide.

How Does Hoarding Pose a Fire Hazard?

So how does hoarding pose a fire hazard? As we have come to learn, hoarding poses a fire hazard in a variety of different ways. For one, hoarded possessions have been shown to greatly increase the fuel load of a residential dwelling. Of the most commonly hoarded items- clothes, bills and statements, books, magazines, and letters- many of these items are highly combustible. Such items raise the chances of a rapidly spreading fire that can be difficult to suppress once it breaks out.

Another fire hazard posed by hoarding is found in the fact that hoarded items can impede the ability to evacuate a home quickly upon the outbreak of a fire. This is due to the fact that, as items are hoarded, these items tend to collect along the perimeter of a room. As these items are piled on top of each other over time they tend to spread inward, leaving only small pathways to allow access to the most commonly used areas of the home in the most severe cases.

Just as hoarding impedes a resident’s ability to evacuate the home quickly in the event of a fire, it also poses a challenge for firefighters as they attempt to rescue anyone that may be trapped inside the home. As dangerous as this is for the occupant of the home, it also poses a significant risk to the safety of emergency personnel responding to the fire.

While previous studies have observed that hoarded items are rarely to blame for the ignition of a fire, there is significant evidence to suggest that the homes of hoarders routinely used utilities in unconventional ways. Older appliances or makeshift utilities pose a great threat for igniting a fire, especially when paired with the fact that these homes are typically filled with large amounts of highly combustible items. Interestingly, there is much research to show that over half of elderly hoarders were found to lack a functioning stove or oven.

The fire hazards presented by hoarding can be broken down into two categories: initiating hazards and enabling hazards. Let’s look at each of these categories in further detail.

Initiating Hazards

It should be noted that the act of hoarding itself rarely presents as an initiating hazard for fires as hoarded items are rarely the source of the ignition itself. Common examples of initiating hazards can include cooking or heating equipment or electrical distribution equipment. While hoarding does not necessarily initiate a fire, there is evidence to suggest that hoarding households have a much higher rate of unconventional use of utilities that could potentially initiate a fire. This fact is further supported by the fact that hoarders often neglect to have a professional repair appliances that break over time. This may be attributed to the fact that social phobia, the fear of being subjected to outside criticism, is co-morbid in 29 percent of people who hoard. This is over four times the percentage of the general population diagnosed with this particular disorder.

Enabling Hazards

The exact severity of a fire that has already been initiated depends largely upon the enabling hazards associated. In order to reduce the damage caused by a fire, minimizing the number of hazards within a room is crucial. So what are enabling hazards? Put simply, enabling hazards are items which increase the severity of the consequences incurred by an already-initiated fire. These items increase the severity of the consequences of the fire by either permitting or promoting the growth and/or spread of the fire, resulting in greater harm.

The degree in which a fire is a hazard is related closely to the time from established burning to something called Full Room Involvement (FRI). This range in time can be anywhere from one minute to twenty minutes for rooms of a normal size. The exact time that a fire takes to reach Full Room Involvement depends on five specific factors: interior finish, room size, contents material, contents clutter, and kindling fuels. For this reason, a greater amount of clutter usually results in a shorter amount of time to reach FRI.

There are four other factors that must be taken into consideration as well regarding FRI. This includes the wall finish or ceiling height, the distribution of clutter, the clutter’s location relative to barriers, and the combustibility of the items in question.

Impeded Movement

In addition to adding to the severity of a fire, hoarded items also pose a severe fire hazard by impeding a person’s ability to escape from the fire within their household. In hoarding households, it is extremely common for doors, exits, and hallways to be blocked by collected items. In a fire scenario, the amount of time that it takes for a resident to escape from a household or otherwise be rescued by firefighters can be a matter of life or death. The amount of items found in a hoarding household can also impede the ability of firefighters to rescue residents as well as put the fire out. This increases the amount of danger for all parties involved.

What is the Prevalence of Hoarding-Related Fires?

Now that you understand how the act of hoarding poses a greater fire hazard in households, you may be wondering just how prevalent hoarding-related fires are in society. According to a study conducted in 2000, fire hazards were alleged in a total of 67 percent of hoarding complaints to health officers in the state of Massachusetts. In a total of 6 percent of these cases, the act of hoarding contributed directly to the death of the individuals’ deaths in those house fires. If this data is assumed to translate to a cross section of hoarding households in other areas of the country, it is clear that the prevalence of hoarding-related fires is particularly severe.

Studies of Fire Incidents Attributed to Hoarding

Finally, in order to better understand the significance of hoarding in creating greater fire hazards, it is important that we take the time to look at studies of fire incidents attributed to hoarding. In this section, we will be taking a close look at fire fatalities as collected by the Australasian Fire Authorities Council in Victoria, demographics of the victims in question, property type, the presence of smoke alarms, and the cause of the fires.

Fire Fatalities

In a recent study from the Australasian Fire Authorities Council in Victoria, accidental fire fatalities in homes were analyzed between the dates of November 1997 and September 2003. This study concluded that, within Victoria, there were a total of 99 fire fatalities resulting from a total of 99 fires in the area during that period.

Demographics of Fire Victims

The study completed by the Australasian Fire Authorities Council in Victoria, of the 99 victims of residential fires during that period, 66 percent of the victims were male. The study also found that fire fatalities were most prevalent in the elderly population. In fact, those aged 70 years of age and above accounted for a total of 25 percent of the fatalities even though this particular demographic made up only 9 percent of Victoria’s total population. Another particularly at-risk group identified by the study was those aged four and under. This data reinforces the fact that the elderly population is most at-risk for having a hoarding problem and directly results in a greater number of fire fatalities caused by hoarding hazards.

Property Type

In the study, it was found that a total of 80 percent of the fatal fires observed occurred in houses while 10 percent of the fires occurred in apartments. The additional 10 percent of fires occurred in other residential areas including sheds or garages. In 29 percent of the cases, property type could not be directly determined. This data suggests that larger properties, such as houses, incur a greater risk of fires caused by hoarding or increased in severity by hoarding behavior.

Smoke Alarms

It was observed that 27 percent of the fatal fires included in the study involved homes where the presence of a smoke alarm was not recorded. Of the data recorded, about half showed that there was not a smoke alarm present while some of the homes did not have a smoke alarm that functioned properly. In total, 57 percent of the homes observed in the study either didn’t have a functioning smoke alarm or had no smoke alarm present. This data jives with previous findings detailing the fact that hoarders typically own appliances that don’t function properly.

Cause of the Fire

Within the study, the cause of the fire could not be exclusively determined in half of the fatal fires. In the other half of the fatal fires, the majority of fires (approximately 22 percent) were caused by a heater, open flame, or lamp. A total of 18 percent of the fires were caused by smoking equipment or materials, 12 percent were caused by the presence of electrical faults, 12 percent were caused by the act of smoking in bed, and another 10 percent were caused by explosions or accidents.

What Can Be Done?

So, taking the findings of the study completed by the Australasian Fire Authorities Council into account, what can we conclude about hoarding-related fires and what can be done to counteract them?

Firstly, it should be noted that there is much evidence found within the study to suggest that hoarding fires require a greater allocation of resources than normal residential fires. Not only did the average hoarding fire require a greater amount of personnel when responding but they also required more pumpers in order to put the fire out. This is due to the fact that hoarding materials tend to cause fires to be fuelled more quickly and can spread more quickly than a normal residential fire. This is evidenced by the fact that a large percentage of hoarding incidents involved in the study involved a spread beyond the room where the fire originated. This creates a particularly dangerous situation for responding firefighters.

Secondly, in observing the characteristics of the fire incidents in which fatalities occurred, it is evident that a high percentage of homes did not have working smoke alarms. It cannot be understated that fire alarms work to save lives and this should be adequately conveyed to the community. It is recommended that greater efforts be made to emphasize the importance of functioning smoke alarms, especially in the homes of hoarders. We believe that the inception of a program used to aid in the installation of smoke alarms specifically within hoarding households could go a long way in reducing the number of preventable fire fatalities.

While the sources of initiation for hoarding fires were not shown to deviate much from those of general fires, even if these differences in causes could be observed this would likely result in very little difference in the severity of hoarding fires. Previous studies completed here within the United States have displayed that hoarders are often aware of the fire risk that they pose with their actions.

Despite an understanding of this risk, many continue to hoard as the compulsion to hoard is just that powerful. For this reason, the most important actions that can be taken include ensuring that those who hoard are well educated about the risks that their hoarding behavior poses, that they have a working smoke alarm installed, and that they be encouraged to maintain clear evacuation routes in the event of a fire. With greater action taken to meet these standards, it is Hoarding Help Central’s hope that the amount of fire incidents in hoarding households that occur each year can be effectively decreased.