Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Bureau (MFB) says it is seeing an increase in house fires associated with hoarding in the Victorian capital, and wants more support for people suffering from the disorder. There were more than 100 fires at hoarders’ homes last year, including many where fire fighters had restricted access and residents faced extra danger because of the clutter filling their homes. At a house fire in Richmond on Wednesday, crews had to use the driveways of adjoining properties to access the blaze because disused vans filled with clutter blocked access to the house. Neighbours said the resident was an elderly man who spent his days cycling around, collecting items which he intends to donate to the Salvation Army. He evacuated safely and was not injured, but the MFB said the house was destroyed. “This is a house people would have walked past hundreds of times and thought ‘that’s a bit messy’, but this person obviously hasn’t got the right help to reduce his risk,” MFB assistant chief fire officer Robert Purcell said. “People think it’s a building issue, the reality is it’s a mental health issue.”
Mr Purcell said MFB research showed fire risk was higher in hoarders’ homes, and hoarders were more likely to die in a house fire. “Usually people are disconnected from services so they are using candles for lighting,” he said. We’ve seen cases where hoarding is up to roofline and a tunnel is cut through the hoarding so a person can access different rooms. Cooking areas [are] cluttered and there’s overuse of power boards and extension cords, because they’re not able to access power points anymore.” Rat and pigeon infestations were common in hoarders’ homes assessed by the MFB. “We’ve seen cases where hoarding is up to roofline and a tunnel is cut through the hoarding so a person can access different rooms.” Mr Purcell said there needed to be better support for hoarders. “Its a disorder … I don’t think the community has picked up on it as well as it could have but it’s definitely a mental disorder, therefore it can be treated.” The MFB now connects hoarders with council authorities and mental health services to provide mental health and practical support. It has also established a Hoarding Notification System to track known hoarder houses, so it knows to send more crews if a fire breaks out.
Anxiety, depression factors for hoarders
Anxiety Australia psychologist Catherine Harding said there were clear signs of hoarding to look out for. “We’re talking about people who have too many possessions to the point their possessions are cluttering their house, their car, their backyard,” she said. “Hoarders generally have their possessions disorganised … and they are of no value.” Ms Harding said, typically, a hoarder would find it hard to resist the urge to pick up hard rubbish, obsessively collect or buy things even if they are worthless. “The hoarding causes distress and it makes their home unworkable and unhygienic,” she said. Treating hoarding depends on understanding the hoarder’s history and reasons for the mental illness. “We have to understand the factors that are playing a part in their hoarding,” Ms Harding said. “Research has found some hoarders have difficulty processing information, memory problems, have trouble putting things into categories or they can be very indecisive.” She said trauma, anxiety and depression were often also factors that needed addressing amongst hoarders. If you or someone you know needs support, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
This article first appeared ABC, 25 March 2015.