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Fire Safety Tips For Compulsive Hoarders

Fire Safety Tips For Compulsive Hoarders

Are you a compulsive hoarder or do you know someone who hoards items? If you know a house is which is full of items it can be a fire hazard. This guide will give you advice you need to keep the house safe from an accidental fire.


Chapter 1

Hoarding and Fire Safety


Chapter 2

Statistics On Hoarding-related Fire Incidents


Chapter 3

Tips For Helping To Prevent Hoarding-related Fires


Chapter 4

Help, Advice And Resources For People At Risk And Those Helping

Chapter 1

Hoarding and Fire Safety

Fire services callouts to properties affected by hoarding are becoming more common in many cities and suburbs around the world.

Most studies have concluded this is due to a combination of:

  • A gradually ageing population (hoarding behaviours are more common in the elderly)
  • The fact that people tend to have more possessions today than in previous decades, and
  • A growing awareness of hoarding as a more widespread disorder than previously realised

Deaths from fires in the home are at an all-time low in Great Britain; incidents have reduced by 40% in the last ten years. However, increased awareness of problematic hoarding reveals that people who hoard remain a significantly more vulnerable group:

  • It is estimated that between 2 and 5% of the population hoard – at least 1.2 million households across the UK
  • It is estimated that only 5% of hoarders come to the attention of statutory agencies

Hoarding behaviours leading to risk of death from fire are acknowledged to me much more prevalent in older people:

  • There were 271 fire deaths in Great Britain in 2012/13, of which 168 (62%) deaths were of people aged 60 or more
  • During this period, people over the age of 60 were ten times more likely to die in a fire than those aged 17-24
  • A London-based study carried out using data from 2011-2012 found evidence of 10 fire-related deaths where hoarding was present – all but one of the victims was over the age of 55
  • An elders-at-risk program in Boston reported that 15% of their elderly clients exhibited severe hoarding problems, with similar levels reported by the Visiting Nurse Association of New York City

People living alone in private accommodation are especially vulnerable to hoarding-related fires:

  • In a study done on 70 older adults who hoard, 55% were found to have never been married – the base rate for people never marrying by age 65 is only 5%
  • Statistically, it is extremely rare for fatal fires in hoarding households to result in the death of more than one person

Research conducted into fire incidents and fatalities involving hoarding households reveals:

  • Fires and deaths from fires in hoarding homes occur across a wide range of metropolitan areas and demographics
  • Housing types most commonly involved in hoarding-related fire incidents:
  • Owner-occupied 63%
  • Public housing 23%
  • Private rental 10%

67% of hoarding-related complaints mention it being a fire hazard. In interviews conducted as part of an extensive fire safety and hoarding study in Australia, researchers reported that:

  • 35% of people who hoard did consider their clutter unhygienic
  • 38% admitted having fallen in the home as a direct effect of clutter
  • 47% considered their hoarding to be a fire hazard
  • 25% of people who hoard did not believe their hoarding presented any sort of safety risk
  • Reports by health officers and elder services caseworkers indicate that fewer than 50% of people who hoard fully recognise the severity of their problem – many appear to ignore or dramatically underestimate the level of clutter in their homes

The fire hazards resulting from hoarding behaviours can be broken down into two main categories: initiating hazards and enabling hazards.

Initiating hazards

  • Hoarding itself does not usually present an initiating hazard, as hoarded items are rarely the source of ignition
  • Examples of initiating hazards can include heating or cooking equipment, or electrical distribution equipment – these are more commonly used in unorthodox or potentially dangerous ways by people whose home environments have been compromised by hoarding
  • Percentage of appliances not usable among elderly people who hoard:
        – Stove/oven: 58%
        – Fridge/freezer: 44%
        – Kitchen sink: 39%
        – Bathtub: 39%
        – Bathroom sink: 23%
        – Toilet: 11%
    4% of homes where a hoarding fire occurred in the Australian study were disconnected from the grid at the time of ignition
  • The overall percentages of fires initiating from heaters, open flames, or lamps are similar among hoarding fires, fatal hoarding fires, and general fatal fires
  • Electrical faults and – to a lesser extent – smoking are the most prevalent causes of fatal hoarding fires overall
  • Smoking appears to cause relatively few fires in hoarding households compared to numbers for domestic fires in general, but data suggests that within hoarding households, fires started from smoking are over three times more likely to result in death

Enabling hazards

  • Enabling hazards are defined as factors, items or scenarios “with potential to increase the severity of consequences resulting from an already-initiated fire”
  • Hazard level is closely related to the time from established burning until Full Room Involvement (FRI)
  • This time can range anywhere from one minute to 20 minutes for most normal-sized rooms
  • The exact time depends on five factors:
        – room size
        – interior finish
        – contents clutter
        – contents material
        – kindling fuels
  • Therefore, more clutter generally means a shorter time to FRI

Chapter 2

Statistics On Hoarding-related Fire Incidents

While hoarding disorders can affect anybody, statistically males aged 50+ are at the greatest risk of fire-related injury or death due to hoarding:

More than 70% of hoarding-related fires occur in households where the occupant is over 50 years old and male. 67% of hoarding-related complaints mention it being a fire hazard, although fire crews acknowledge that hoarding behaviours themselves are not usually a direct cause of fire

Hoarded items are rarely a direct source of ignition. Examples of common initiating hazards in properties affected by hoarding include:

  • Heating equipment
  • Cooking equipment
  • Electrical distribution equipment

Statistically, the source of ignition in hoarding fires is not much different than the average residential fire. Hoarding households do have a higher than average rate of fire caused by ‘unorthodox use of utilities’

  • Of the elderly people who hoard interviewed in a 2009 study, more than half did not have a working s stove or oven, and commonly used makeshift measures

Commonly observed fire causes classed as ‘unorthodox use of utilities’ in properties affected by hoarding include:

  • candles used for lighting
  • cooking over a homemade fireplace
  • cooking on a poorly constructed barbeque
  • oversized and multi-strand fuse wires
  • kerosene lamps being used in place of electric lights

In addition, the costs of such fires were found to be substantially greater than non-hoarding related ones:

  • The average dollar loss for residential fires in non-hoarding properties was around $13,000 – just 12.6% of the average damage estimate in hoarding fires
  • Cost per response for emergency services was found to be about 16 times higher in cases of hoarding fires than for other residential callouts

Fires in hoarding properties are often more severe than average:

  • The frequency of pump use in tackling hoarding fires (often considered an indicator of fire severity) is almost twice the average for residential callouts
  • The number of responders needed on site is typically higher for hoarding incidents
  • In roughly 10% of hoarding fires, fire spreads and causes damage to neighbouring homes; a much higher percentage than in most other types of domestic fire
  • On average, only 40% of fires in properties affected by moderate to severe hoarding are contained to the room of origin; typical containment rates in average residential fires are closer to 90%

Of the hoarding-related fire callouts studied for the Melbourne research, impeded egress or access was specifically mentioned as a contributing factor in 38% of incident reports.

Chapter 3

Tips For Helping To Prevent Hoarding-related Fires

While hoarding disorders can affect anybody, statistically males aged 50+ are at the greatest risk of fire-related injury or death due to hoarding:

More than 70% of hoarding-related fires occur in households where the occupant is over 50 years old and male. 67% of hoarding-related complaints mention it being a fire hazard, although fire crews acknowledge that hoarding behaviours themselves are not usually a direct cause of fire


Recognise The Danger Signs

The Top Five Items Saved By People Who Hoard Are:

89% clothes
79% cards/letters
79% bills/statements
77% books
68% magazines

These are all highly combustible materials, and in copious quantities can promote a fast-spreading, very hot fire that is hard to suppress.

Fires in hoarding properties present an elevated danger not only to the residents, but also to neighbouring buildings and people

Hoarding in homes increases fire risk because:

  • Accumulation of possessions results in an abnormally high fuel load and greater opportunity for ignition • The more materials within a structure, the greater the heat release, the smoke and toxin releases
  • Blocked exits and narrow internal pathways impede escape for the occupant and access for firefighters
  • Non-functional gas or electricity may result in unsafe practices for cooking and heating • In many severely cluttered homes, it’s common to find unsafe electrical circuits that have become damaged through neglect, or by pets and vermin

Lack of access to doorways and other standard entries poses a threat both to occupants and firefighters attempting to enter a property

  • Severely cluttered homes can obscure the extent or severity of a fire, meaning rescuers may misread the danger level from outside

If you or someone you know does store copious amounts of possessions in and around your home, you can help keep yourself safe from fire by following the advice below.

Ideally, these simple steps should be incorporated into a regularly scheduled clearance programme:

  • Make it a priority to keep cooking areas clear, whether using orthodox equipment or a makeshift setup
  • Remove any items placed on (or close to) heaters, lamps and other electrical equipment
  • Do not store gas cylinders in the home – they are a serious hazard during a fire
    – If there is a medical need for gas cylinders, including oxygen, they should be kept upright and outdoors where possible
    – Never store cylinders in basements, under stairs or in cupboards with electric meters or equipment
  • Smokers should always use a proper ashtray that won’t burn, placing it on a flat, stable surface
    – Never leave lit cigarettes unattended
  • Candles and tea lights should be used in well-fitting, heat resistant holders, and placed on a flat, stable, heat-resistant surface away from combustible materials
    – Never leave lit candles unattended
  • Install smoke alarms and test them weekly – your local fire service can assist and advise on this
    – Only 26% of hoarding households had a working smoke alarm in the Melbourne study, compared to the household average of 66%
    – 60% of hoarding households did not have any smoke alarms installed
    – 12% had malfunctioning or non-operational devices
  • Plan and practise how to escape from your home in case of fire:
    – Identify at least two different escape routes, and keep them clear of possessions (including all doors and windows)
    – Store possessions on stable surfaces, and do not stack them to a height at which they become unstable – they could fall and block your escape
  • Newspapers and mail stored in bulk are highly combustible and will cause a fire to spread rapidly – Sort through paper items on the day you receive them, and recycle on a regular basis
  • In the event of a fire:
    – Do not attempt to put it out yourself
    – Leave your home immediately, and call the fire service from a safe location outside – Do not stop to collect possessions
    – Do not go back inside once you have escaped

Chapter 4

Help, Advice And Resources For People At Risk And Those Helping

For people attempting to assist someone at risk of hoarding-related fire:

When attempting to approach or assist someone you suspect may be coping with hoarding disorders that put them at increased fire risk, consider the three distinguishing traits defined by Frost and Hartl (1996) to identify a person who hoards:

  • The acquisition of, and failure to discard, large numbers of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited financial or sentimental value
  • Living spaces sufficiently cluttered that using the room as intended has become impossible
  • Significant distress or impairment in the ability to function

Also important to remember:

  • Hoarding isn’t a matter of choice, stubbornness or economy – it’s a mental health condition, and should be approached appropriately
  • Surprise clean-ups do not typically ‘work’ as a long-term solution for hoarding problems
  • Relapses are common if the core mental health aspects of compulsive hoarding disorders are not addressed
  • Unaddressed hoarding behaviours will often begin again immediately after a clean-up, even in a new environment
  • Around 10% of hoarding-related fire incident reports over the past decade specifically mention that an occupant was uncooperative during the callout
  • People affected by hoarding may also experience an elevated level of isolation, and reject offers of assistance either due to
    – Awkwardness, embarrassment or a concern for privacy
    – Fear that intervention will result in removal of their possessions
  • Prevalence of comorbidities associated with hoarding:
    – major depression – 57%
    – social phobia (fear of being subject to outside criticisms) – 29%
    – generalized anxiety disorder – 28%

Unblock exits and make sure all escape routes are kept clear at all times

Widen internal pathways between possessions

Check all utilities are connected and in good working order

Prioritise removing clutter from around cooking areas and stove tops

Ensure clutter is removed from around heaters and electrical items

 Discourage the use of open flames or hazardous makeshift solutions for cooking and lighting

 Sort and recycle any highly combustible materials such as mail and newspapers

Notes on duties, responsibilities and permissions:

In the UK, rulings introduced relating to the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) under the Housing Act 2004 give local authorities the right:

– to enter dwellings after giving 24 hours’ notice in cases where a hazard has been identified or they believe a hazard exists

– to use enforcement powers to take remedial action where required


A firefighter has a duty to:

– address hazards as they’re found at a property

– remove anything that poses an immediate danger to the occupant or to others in the area (including emergency services teams)

– be mindful to respect the privacy and independence of people living as they choose in their own accommodation



International OCD Foundation’s Clutter Image Ratings (click here)
How fire spreads in a cluttered room – video (click here)
Tips for firefighters responding to incidents in hoarder homes (click here)
Free guide for the fire service (click here)
Safety Sheet on hoarding   (click here)
Arrange a free home fire safety visit (London)   (click here)
National Fire Protection Association article: The Dangers of Too Much Stuff   (click here)


For people at risk of hoarding-related fire Many organisations online offer free support for people at greater risk of fire due to hoarding:

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