Hoarding increases fire-fatality risk - study

00:06, Jan 18 2010

Hoarders may be more at risk of dying if a fire breaks out in their house, a study has found.

Paula Beever, director of Fire Risk Management for the New Zealand Fire Service, said hoarding was a growing problem, and typically involved elderly men.

A recent Australian study has looked at hoarding from a fire-risk perspective and examined 10 years of Melbourne fire data and identified 48 hoarding fire incidents.

These accounted for 0.25 per cent of all residential fires in that period but made up 24 per cent of preventable fire fatalities.

Fires in hoarders' premises used more firefighting resources than the average residential fires, Beever said.

"There are often narrow internal pathways and blocked exits which make it difficult for people to get out and also make it hard for firefighters to get in to rescue them and attack the fire."

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One in four people killed in accidental house fires in Melbourne since 2000 had been a "compulsive hoarder", the study found.

Christchurch area commander Dan Coward said hoarding could be a factor in 50 to 100 house fires each year in Canterbury – about 2 per cent of house fires.

Hoarding was a factor in five out of 282 accidental house fire fatalities between July 1995 and December 2008, he said.

Of the five fatalities:

Two involved carelessness with cigarettes. Two involved alcohol. Three of the victims had known psychiatric histories. All were European. Their socio-economic deprivation status was in the mid-range. Three were elderly women (over 75 years) and two were men under the age of 65. The locations were across the range of metropolitan/small town and rural – all of which suggests that hoarders are fairly typical and span social classes.

Hoarding provided more opportunity for flammable materials and heat sources to ignite, more fire-spread due to fuel loading, and preventing escape with clutter contributing to confusion and blocking escape routes, Coward said.

"Anecdotally, we have a lot of reports of clutter being a factor in fires," he said.

"While chronic hoarding is fairly obvious and easy to identify, clutter is very subjective and what is cluttered in one person's judgment might be normal to someone else."

The Press