Fire refocuses attention on hoarding

The dangers of hoarding have been weighing on the minds of emergency responders after a fire in Front Royal on Sunday night partially destroyed a house and sent an elderly woman to the hospital.

Front Royal police and Warren County firefighters arrived at the house at 208 Polk Ave. to find two occupants inside amid the smoke and flames and piles of what Fire Chief Richard E. Mabie called “collectibles” that impeded rescue and firefighting efforts.

Police, with the help of one of the occupants who escaped on his own, managed to rescue the two other people inside the home. But the rescuers’ movements and visibility were limited by hoarding that filled up much of the space in the house.

Mabie blamed hoarding for the death of a Front Royal woman in a fire in February 2013. The victim died from smoke inhalation and thermal injuries after the accumulation of items in the house thwarted rescue efforts by firefighters and contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico said hoarding, combined with smoke and fire, can disorient emergency responders when they enter a burning house. The house fire Sunday night was an example of the dangers hoarding poses to firefighters and police, and the people they are trying to rescue.

“God forbid, if there had been a medical emergency, we would have had a hard time removing the patient from the home,” Maiatico said.

In the aftermath of the fatal fire in 2013, county officials formed an ad hoc committee with the goal of coordinating efforts among various agencies – fire and rescue, social services, law enforcement and county administration – that provide services that may help to reduce hoarding among homeowners.

Mental health professionals say hoarding is a product of psychological factors such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse and afflictions related to old age.

“I want to stop short of saying it’s a mental illness, per se,” Mabie said of hoarding, “but there’s got to be a certain mindset that makes people do that. That’s what the committee does is look into it and refer them to social services or what have you.”

Local governments can set standards for the appearance of yards, but the interior of a home is another matter.

“A person’s home is their castle, so to speak,” Mabie said. “You can bring these things up and warn of the dangers and bad things that can happen, but the decision to do something about it is really with the homeowner.”

Maiatico said the fire department gives out free smoke alarms and installs them, but hoarders sometimes reject the offers. In such cases, fire officials give the alarms to family members in the hopes the hoarder will be more receptive to having a family member install the device.

“We are compassionate with the problem,” Maiatico said, adding, “We’re not here to judge. We’re here to provide fire safety features to the home and ensure the safety of the occupants.”

Fire officials urge anyone who needs a free smoke alarm or more information about hoarding to contact the Warren County Department of Fire and Rescue Services at 636-3830 or visit www.warrencountyfire.com.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com