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Hoarding and the Dangers for Firefighters

Firefighters often face dangerous situations on the job, but one added complication is human-made, and can drastically change the course of an operation. It's caused by hoarding.
Firefighters often face dangerous situations on the job, but one added complication is human-made, and can drastically change the course of an operation. It's caused by hoarding.

Firefighters run into lots of different environments, but the hoarder's home is not only gross, it can also be deadly.

Behind each door is the unknown for firefighters. They go into smoke-filled homes checking for victims, but sometimes, they find much, more than they bargained for. "We are never surprised at what we see," said Captain Michael Gill with the Fresno Fire Department.

Captain Gill has been a firefighter for 30 years and has been in some horrific conditions. "There was animal feces all over the floor and the smell is just gagging. I mean, it's hard to describe," said Gill.

We were shown pictures taken inside a Fresno home several years ago by a Fresno firefighter. The photos showed just how bad it can get, with cobwebs hanging like curtains and junk piled high. But it doesn't just make firefighters cringe, it makes their job much more dangerous. Not only are they navigating around the stuff, they're worried about items falling and blocking their escape route. "But what happens when you bring the hose line and a bunch of stuff falls on it now, and you can't find the hoseline, it's dangerous to the firefighter," said Captain Gill.

Training for hoarding situations happens on the job.. The Clovis Fire Department simulates a cluttered apartment fire to show us what they see going in... a thick gray fog and junk everywhere.

If you're someone who's trapped behind all of that garbage and you need help, it's really hard for firefighters to come in and get you out And sadly, sometimes the firefighter gets there too late because of the obstructions. In November of 2010, Laura Hanson died from smoke inhalation in her Northwest Fresno home. Her neighbor and friend watched in the rain, as rescuers ripped the door off the frame to get inside. "...and I sat there and I watched them tear my friend's house apart," said Lisa Gipson, Laura's friend.

The fire department says a fire smoldered for two days before anyone saw the smoke, it likely started from a floor heater. Hanson's body was found upstairs. 

Lisa Gipson says she walked through Laura's home the next day with a fire investigator, looking for her friend's cat. It was much worse than she could ever have imagined. "It smelled and unfortunately, he said what you're smelling is the smell of death, basically. There were animals everywhere. Cats, possums, a dog. I didn't even know she had a dog," said Gipson.

Gipson says after twenty years of friendship, Hanson became reclusive when she was forced to retire from teaching. Over the next couple years, she saw her friend less and less. Meanwhile, the hoarding got worse.

"It's not just one episode of not throwing things away, it's literally years of accumulation," said Dr. Christine Edmondson, a professor at Fresno State.

Dr. Edmondson studies the cause and treatment for hoarding. She says it's a mental disorder and is sometimes coupled with obsessive compulsive behavior.

On the television show "Hoarders: Buried Alive," they help people clear out their stuff all at once. Dr. Edmundson says the best approach to lasting change is gradual therapy and it could take years of work. "The person brings in some objects meant to be thrown away and there's discussion about what it might feel like to throw it away, even practice throwing it away by placing it in the therapist's trash can," said Dr. Edmundson.

From the outside, you can't always tell who is hoarding. When the problem becomes evident from the outside, neighbors call code enforcement. Fresno says it has about 20 open cases. Lisa Gipson wishes she or Laura Hanson's family would have intervened. "I would say, find authorities, find a psychologist, plan an intervention. Do something," said Gipson.

Dr. Edmondson says a person who hoards can reclaim their space. Captain Gill says the home where the photos were taken is now cleaned up. He even stops by periodically to check in and hold residents accountable. Now there's one less hoarder home for firefighters to deal with.

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