Hoarding is a complex mental health condition that has been proven to significantly increase the risk and impact of fire. It refers to the excessive accumulation of items that often creates cramped living spaces, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter.
According to a 2009 study undertaken by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) in Melbourne, fires in hoarding households are indeed fiercer and more expensive to fight than other kinds of residential fires*. In New South Wales, fires in hoarding households represent eight per cent of all fire fatalities since 2000, with one third of these fatalities aged 60 years or over.
Hoarding can increase the risk and impact of fire due to:
- The increased accumulation of combustibles (such as papers or clothing), which typically result in abnormally high fuel loads. High fuel loads change the fire dynamic, causing a faster growing and more intense fire. The risk of ignition also increases as there is less space for heat to dissipate from appliances such as dryers and power boards.
- Abnormally high fuel levels are also likely to compromise the performance of sprinkler systems and may result in system failure.
- Piled clutter may block exits and reduce the path of travel to an exit, making it difficult for occupants to evacuate and firefighters to access the building
The situation may be made considerably worse if utilities are disconnected or misused, resulting in the occupant using unsafe practices to cook and heat their home.
The MFB report also found the costs of fire escalate with hoarding. The estimated average damage bill of a residential fire was $12,500, while hoarding fires averaged $100,000.
Hoarding in multi-residential buildings and complexes can increase fire risk and occupant harm, given the proximity of neighbours. Fire & Rescue NSW advises the following considerations for larger complexes:
- High levels of storage may compromise installed sprinkler systems by creating a shielding effect between the sprinkler and fire
- Fire stairs are not permitted to be used for storage. It is an offence to impede free access of a person in fire stairs and fines can be imposed.
- Ensure the building is properly compartmentalised with fire doors, and maintain passive fire protection systems
- Stored items in common areas could reduce required egress width and contribute to fire spread.
Landlords and strata managers are encouraged to exercise sensitivity in dealing with tenants that may be hoarders. The situation may require intervention and long term support from appropriate agencies.
* An Analysis of Fire Incidents Involving Hoarding Households, Metropolitan Fire Brigade