Dealing with Fires in the Homes of Hoarders

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KANAWHA COUNTY, (WSAZ) -- Several Kanawha County firefighters spent last week learning how to battle fires in "hoarding" homes.

Ryan Pennington has spent years fighting fires. Much of that time, he has dedicated it to researching how to fight fires in homes filled with clutter.

He says fire departments have been seeing a much higher number of "hoarding" fires in recent years throughout West Virginia.

"Compulsive Hoarding Disorder affects the elderly more often, and as the baby boomers get older we're starting to see the frequency of occurrences happen a lot more often," Pennington said.

He says it adds another layer of risk to an already dangerous job.

"Imagine these stacks of stuff being 3 or 4 feet high. They can fall down on you; they can trap you," Pennington said.

He and several other firefighters from Pinch, Institute, and Ripley Fire departments spent a few days in a mock hoarder house, learning how to cut through the clutter.

"They call it the duck-and-dive technique," Pennington said. "You duck under the smoke and dive in. We know you can't do that with hoarding because it's blocking your pathways. So you really have to go up and above."

It means fire crews must crawl on top of the piles to get inside the home. Another method involves drilling holes on the sides of homes to help extinguish the fire.

Things that most people would consider junk and just toss in the garbage become treasured items to hoarders. Pennington said they often run back into a burning building to save belongings.

Andrew Sharp knows how dangerous hoarding can be. His brother was a hoarder -- he was even featured in a national show.

"It's so engrained in people's life's like my family member's that it can ruin the chances for other things in life," Sharp said.

The Rand Fire Department saw just how difficult hoarding makes firefighting back in February when a woman died in a house fire.

Firefighters say the clutter inside the home was so much they couldn't get to her. It took them eight hours to find her. However, firefighters were able to save a neighboring church (First Church of the Nazarene) from the flames.

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