House fires with hoarding dangerous for firefighters

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TEMPE, Ariz. - Homeowners' habits may have contributed to an explosive house fire in Tempe. The home, located near Mill Avenue and the U.S. 60, blew up last week and two firefighters were injured trying to put out the flames.

Investigators say the fire started with a backyard barbecue but was made worse by what the homeowners were keeping inside.

Firefighters say the family sells furniture and household items -- items that were once stored in storage but, because of the bad economy, are now stored at home. It’s all stuff firefighters say helped fuel the fire, making it more difficult and dangerous to fight and this isn’t the first time.

“It has escalated to the point where hoarding is injuring our firefighters,” said Tempe Fire Public Information Officer Mike Reichling.

Capt. Mike Kuehl suffered second-degree burns on his face, one ear and one hand. Firefighter Brandon Coker hurt his knee. Both were treated and released from hospitals. A homeowner was taken to a hospital for treatment of burns to his chest and back.

“I could see through the front door and see a lot of boxes piled up in that front doorway and one little aisle that went into the house,” Kuehl said. “For us the cleaner everything is it just makes everything that much smoother to go down a hallway and pull a hose line without things getting caught up.”

Kuehl said he was bending over outside putting on his oxygen mask when there was an explosion in the home and he was hit.

“It felt like getting pelted with a bunch of rocks or BB's and lots of heat,” he said.

Valley firefighters say it’s time the public is educated on just how deadly and dangerous responding to homes where there is hoarding can be.

“The boxes, the paper, the raw materials, it's like kindling to a campfire,” said Brad Pitassi from the Valley Fire Information Network. “These fires kill firefighters. Luckily, we're here to talk about a near miss and not a tragic death of a firefighter or occupants of a building.”

The cities and counties all offer crisis teams ready to help if you or someone you know is a hoarder. Experts say that while hoarding is typically a symptom of mental illness, it is also now a symptom of the bad economy and is therefore much more common than it used to be.

“We have people that were living in very large homes moving into a little bit smaller homes and apartments and they're not getting rid of their stuff," Pitassi said. "This is creating these hoarding issues and these hoarding problems, as well.”

Valley firefighters say there is no enforcement option. Their only hope is to educate the public as to the dangers associated with hoarding.

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