Hoarders cause piles of trouble at fires

Clutter in some homes adds to the dangers

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Firefighters crawled over piles of books, newspapers and boxes to extinguish the heavy flames rising from the second floor of a vacant home last week in Homestead.

They arrived to find the stairwell blocked and "all packed up with stuff," said the borough's deputy fire chief, Ron Kalupson -- signs that a hoarder might once have lived there.

Alvin Henderson, Allegheny County's chief of emergency services, said encountered the same type of hazard during his early days in the fire service.

"[Hoarding] has always been an issue," he said. "It remains a concern for the individual living in that condition ... but also for public safety personnel."

Piles of possessions can simultaneously fuel a blaze and inhibit -- or even hurt -- the firefighters trying to put it out. A firefighter was injured Tuesday in Homestead when he received an electrical shock while extending a hose to the second floor. If the stairwell had been accessible, Deputy Chief Kapluson said, the firefighter wouldn't have been forced to put himself at an even greater risk.

A 2009 analysis by students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts found that for one city in Australia, where the behavior is also a problem, hoarding accounted for only a quarter-percent of all residential fires in 10 years -- but 24 percent of fire fatalities during the same period. The study also found that hoarding fires required a much greater allocation of resources than average residential blazes.

"It doesn't happen too often, but when it does, it has some dramatic effects," said Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who has written about hoarding, citing the Worcester Polytechnic study.

One early case dates to 1947, when brothers Homer and Langley Collyer were found dead in their brownstone in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, surrounded by piles of belongings. News reports at the time speculated that one brother, who was paralyzed, suffered from heart disease and may have starved to death after the other brother was caught in a booby trap he had set up in the home to catch intruders.

Among their possessions were stacks of phone books, newspapers, tin cans, clocks and a two-headed baby in formaldehyde, the New York Times reported. The discovery prompted firefighters to name a dwelling packed high with stuff a "Collyers' Mansion," a term still used today, even though the brothers' home did not catch fire.

Psychologists now recognize hoarding as a mental health disorder, and just last year, it was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, Mr. Frost said.

And in July, the 21st annual Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder conference will for the second time include a hoarding meeting and professional training session on hoarding task forces.

Such groups have popped up across the country, including one in Morgantown, W.Va., made up of officials in the city's code enforcement, health, animal control, police and fire departments, among others. Formed in 2012, the group has touted itself as that state's first formed to work together on hoarding cases.

At least two other Allegheny County fires in recent years have been linked to hoarding.

Last August, items stacked inside a vacant Beltzhoover home prevented Pittsburgh firefighters from getting inside.

And in June 2012, 83-year-old Liz Cutone of Bethel Park, died when her home caught fire. In an interview then, Bethel Park fire Chief Dave Gerber said Cutone was "definitely a hoarder" and the amount of items she'd collected inside the home made the fire burn much faster.

Allegheny County assessment records show the house on Sylvan Avenue in Homestead that caught fire last week was owned by Margaret Mary Vojtko, the former Duquesne University adjunct professor of French whose death in September sparked a debate about the workloads and pay of adjuncts at U.S. universities.

An article about Vojtko in the online magazine Slate late last year said she lived at the home with her sister and brother. When her brother died in 1993, she filled both that house and one the family purchased next door for storage with her belongings and piled boxes against the walls and windows.

The Allegheny County fire marshal's office is investigating the fire's cause and origin.

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.

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