About a dozen fatal fires in the Washington, D.C.-area since 2013 are linked to hoarding, or excessive clutter inside the homes, according to a review of state fire records by the News4 I-Team.
In each case, the high concentration of items inside the houses complicated the search and rescue of victims inside, according to the official notes and records from local fire departments.
The fires, all of which drew large responses from local fire departments, underscore the increasing risk to homeowners and firefighters from excessive storage or clutter. State and local fire department leaders told the I-Team they are still trying to measure and study how widespread the threat posed.
The recent victims include Pauline Hockett, 72, who died when fire consumed her home in Front Royal, Virginia, in 2013. Hockett’s son, Glenn, arrived at the scene shortly after the fire ignited.
“The amount of stuff (inside) played a role in fueling the fire,” he said. “Even the best fire department wasn’t able to put it down.”
Maryland’s state fire marshal said the issue of clutter contributed to at least one fatal fire in Laurel and three more in the Baltimore-area since 2013. In one Baltimore County blaze, a firefighter was killed.
Prince George’s County firefighters are training recruits about the hazards and hurdles of combatting fires in cluttered homes.
“Think of yourself in a sand pit and every time you try to move more of that sand, it just sloshes around you,” Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said.
Excessive clutter in a home increases the risk of floors collapsing in a fire, Bashoor said. It also slows firefighters from getting inside windows and doors, he said.
“Every time you try to move something out of the way to get your next foot forward, something else falls down on top of you,” he said.
Prince George’s County Fire records reviewed by the I-Team show the average time needed to access a victim in the home of a suspected “hoarder” tops one hour and 20 minutes. The records show the typical average for traditional fires is approximately five minutes.
Montgomery County formed a task force in 2011 to help provide assistance to families experiencing the problem of hoarding. A county spokeswoman said the task force continues to collaborate and offers services.
Fairfax County also has a committee focused on hoarding issues. Anyone with concerns about the well-being of a person living amid potential hoarding conditions should contact the county’s Department of Code Compliance at (703) 324-1300, a county spokesman said.
“We have several very experienced staff in addressing hoarding conditions and can both help answer questions and refer them to other local professionals, based on their situations, as needed,” he said.
Persuading a family member who deals with the disorder is challenging, if not impossible, Hockett said. He said he urges relatives to contact fire departments to alert them if they suspect a relative is suffering from excessive clutter so firefighters can address the risk before a fire occurs.
“(Firefighters) can be checking fire extinguishers and smoke detectors in the house,” he said. “And perhaps they’ll have an idea of what they may have to face.”
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.