Published on January 1, 2012.

Bigger + Costlier

An Australian study finds that hoarding fires are different than typical residential fires

Many firefighters have stories about the extreme difficulty of fighting fire in the homes of compulsive hoarders. A 2009 Australian study, however, quantifies how fires in hoarding households are indeed fiercer and more expensive to fight than other kinds of residential fires.

The report, "An Analysis of Fire Incidents Involving Hoarding Households," was produced by students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the request of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) of Melbourne, Australia, which was alarmed by three recent fire fatalities in hoarding situations. The study represents the first attempt to examine hoarding from a fire safety perspective.

While the sample was small, the results were striking:

  • Of the district’s fires from 1999 to 2009, only 48 of them, or .25 percent of all fires, were in hoarding households. However, these fires accounted for 24 percent of preventable fire fatalities during this period. (The authors note that the number of hoarding fires was underrepresented because of the difficulty in extrapolating evidence of hoarding from the Australian Incident Reporting System database.)
  • Fires were contained to the room of origin in 90 percent of all residential fires. In hoarding homes, however, that percentage dropped to 40, indicating that hoarded materials promote the spread of fire through a dwelling.
  • Hoarding-related fires required an average of 2.6 pumpers and 17.1 personnel, compared to 1.5 pumpers and 7.7 personnel for residential blazes.
  • The estimated average damage amount of a residential fire was $12,500, while hoarding fires averaged $100,000.
  • The cost to the MFB per fire was $2,100 for residential fires, compared to $34,000 for hoarding fires—more than 16 times the cost.
  • Only 26 percent of hoarding households had a working smoke alarm, compared to the household average of
    66 percent.

"We started to be able to say, ‘It isn’t just hearsay — these really are bigger fires’," said Julie Harris, a Community Ageing Strategist for the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board in Melbourne, Australia, who helped design the study. "[People who hoard] place themselves at really incredible risk. They place the neighboring property and firefighters at higher risk."

The source of ignition in hoarding fires was similar to other residential fires. The most common cause of ignition was cooking, which accounted for 39 percent of incidents. A heater, open flame, or lamp and electrical faults were the other most common causes. Smoking caused 12 percent of the fires and accounted for three fatalities. An NFPA study of all home structure fires from 2003 to 2007 found that 40 percent of fires were caused by cooking, 18 percent by heating equipment, 6 percent by electrical, 5 percent by smoking, and 4 percent by candles.

Harris said the study underscores how normal hazards from fire are exacerbated by compulsive hoarding. "Daily living is dangerous in a hoarding house," she said.

Top Photograph: Newscom