Hoarder Stories:Electrical Fire

Hoarder Fire Hoarder Response from a Northeastern Fire Department:

Initial dispatch info is for sparking/arcing on the utility pole in front of the complainant's residence, at 12:08am. We respond with a crew of 3 (driver (a LT filling in), Sr  firefighter serving as acting officer (myself) and a FF) (non emergency per SOG) and arrive on scene in 5 minutes, with PD on location.  PD reports to us that he has been on location for 2 minutes, has observed nothing, spoken with the complainant, who informed him he still had power, etc.  PD leaves for a priority call at that point.  We observe nothing with regards to the pole, we quickly check some surrounding homes to confirm they have power, etc.  I go to the door to talk to the complainant and get further detail.  He reports he observed what he believed to be arcing or sparking while he was arriving home and called it in.  At this point approx. 10 minutes has passed since initial call.  I return to the street, talk to the LT, we agree the best path forward is to have dispatch make contact with the utility company to follow up in the morning and to advise the homeowner to call back should he experience any issues.  I return to the front door to talk to the resident.



As I am going over our standard details with him about following up, etc. he reports he heard a loud sound, a "bang" as he described it, in his basement.  Shortly after he makes that statement, and before I could even reply, another loud noise comes from the house, what sounds to be in the basement.  At this point, I ask him to leave the structure, verify that no one else was at home, and inform my LT of the situation.  We return to the street, we put airpacks on, grab the TIC and hand tools off the rig, I take the other FF on the crew into the house, with the LT assuming command at the street, and he requests the balance of the structure assignment.  The conditions on the first floor were EXTREMELY clean.  Nothing out of place.  It looked straight out of better homes and gardens.  I opened the basement door and attempted to turn on the light switch.  Nothing.  Doesn't work.  I call my LT as I go down the stairs to ask the occupant if the lights in the basement worked normally.  Occupant reports they do not.  I turn on my hand light while descending the stairs and it is what we refer to has "high density content".  There is nothing but 2 small paths maybe 18 inches wide, one from the base of the stairs to the south end of the basement where the washer, dryer, fuel oil tank and oil burner were located, and another small path that went to the west, where the switch panel and a man door to the outside were located.  It was stacked to waist level, or higher everywhere throughout a 20x50 space.  Everything ranging from boxes with various contents to folded cardboard boxes banded together and stacked to piles of clothes, and everything else under the sun.

At this time the 2nd due arrives and I advise the LT of the conditions and tell him to have the 2nd due crew stand by while we work in the basement.   I made the decision to head towards the panel box on the west wall.  As we advanced, we had to physically remove obstacles from the path, while walking sideways.  The piles were so high that I was actually considering withdrawing and attempting to make entry from the man door on the outside, as it appeared to be a shorter path to the panel box.  As we approached the panel box I realized the path terminated before reaching the box.  At that point I used the TIC to look for preliminary heat signatures in the walls around the panel box and in the panel box itself.  We had about 5 more feet to physically reach the panel box.  We removed approximately 20 boxes stacked, plus an old washer and dryer,  to get to the panel box.  We confirm nothing is tripped in the box.  At this point I observe the man door, which is about 5 feet further west along the same wall, is physically open, more than just ajar.

I ask the LT via radio to talk to the occupant to confirm that the door was previously closed.  Homeowner confirms it was.  I make my way to the door and observe fresh footprints in the snow immediately outside the door.  At this point my instinct is that  the home owner didn't secure the door previously and/or it was forced open by wind, banging against piles of junk around it.  We retreat back down the path we cleared and make our way back to the stairs and then to the south wall, where the functioning washer/dryer, oil burner and tank were located, walking sideways and moving items out of our path as we go.  I got close enough to get a good signature off the TIC, confirmed no issues on that wall and began working back towards the stairs again.  Total elapsed time to check the basement, over 20 minutes from time of entry to the structure. That was the part that shocked me more than the conditions we encountered...over 20 minutes...almost 25 actually.  I thought when I reached the bottom of the stairs and evaluated the situation it might take 10 minutes versus the usual 5 or so it would take under more ideal circumstances.  It took a hell of a lot longer than that.  That was the aspect that surprised me the most, was the sheer amount of time and delay in being able to fully investigate the situation in the basement.

We determined the noise was most likely due to the unsecured door contacting a junked hot water heater in its path and put everything back in service.It was a unique experience, and the hoarding conditions led to creating a situation that actually forced us to deal with them, had the hoarding conditions not existed, the situation that necessitated us to investigate would have never occurred.  Then we were forced to deal with the conditions themselves.

Learning Point:

In hindsight, if I had it to do over again, I would have withdrawn from the basement and attempted to make entry via the man door, which was the shorter path to the panel box, however we still would have had to check the other wall anyway.  No win situation I guess, but I think it would have been less labor intensive and quicker to have withdrawn and attempted entry from another direction and had a second crew work their way through to the south wall from the base of the stairs and even then I am not too keen on the idea of committing 2 crews under those conditions, with the real possibility of entrapment/entanglement, etc.

Chamber Quick Tips:

  • When Hoarding is Discovered search for alternate routes of Entry

  • Prepare yourself for the Extra Workload

  • Thermal Imaging is required in Hoarding Situations

  • Use a uncharged Hoseline or Search rope to help stay oriented in case of TIC failure

Hoarding possible cause of fatal Illinois fire
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Monday, 21 October 2019
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