Dozens of animals housed in cages or boxes with waste accumulating. Stacks of newspapers and magazines that date back several years. Boxes of books blocking hallways.
Wads of plastic grocery bags, many filled with trash, by walls of crushed cardboard beer cases and empty cans that reach to the ceiling.
These are just a few of the items that firefighters from around the East Valley have encountered in the homes of hoarders, a term recently made more familiar through reality television shows such as "Hoarders" and "Buried Alive." It's an obsessive-compulsive mental disorder people live with as they accumulate and surround themselves with an overwhelming amount of stuff.
In the last few years, East Valley fire crews have noticed an increase in hoarding, creating health hazards for the people who suffer from disorder, and dangers for emergency crews who respond to emergency calls at their homes.
Safety and emergency crews can't see the problem from the outside of a home, but once inside, they encounter a scenario that makes it more dangerous for them to put out house fires and save the lives of others.
"We go into these homes to fight fires or respond to people with medical issues, and we have barely enough room to get to the patients," said Mike Reichling, an inspector for the Tempe Fire Department. "It delays our response. I've been in situations where there's been only a little pathway and the materials were stacked from the floor to the ceilings, even in the attics, every closet, inside the ovens and inside the bathtubs."
Forrest Smith, a spokesman for the Mesa Fire Department, said, "It's been a problem for us for years. Not only does hoarding hamper our ability to put out a fire quickly, but also to conduct search and rescue to save the lives of those inside."
Just last week, two East Valley fire departments - Tempe and Gilbert - began a training program to recognize hoarding situations and better combat them. The training will resume in March, Reichling said.
"The guys were challenged in dragging a hose through debris and cluttered situations and navigating blocked egresses," Reichling said. "We're showing the guys how to deal with challenging situations before they happen and they get trapped inside and can't make it back out."
The training came just a day before Tempe fire crews battled what is believed to have been an electrical fire inside a home in the 2500 block of East Riviera Drive south of Southern Avenue and near Evergreen Street involving a hoarder who had stacks of tools, parts of musical equipment and amplifiers. The man had built guitars during the 1960s and 70s for performers such as Roy Clark and Alice Cooper, and had accumulated musical equipment for decades. He was upset that a fire had destroyed the home's contents, Reichling said.
"It was a challenge," Reichling said. "Our guys went in about 15 feet and they encountered so much, they had to come back out and go defensive on the fire."
At least one mental health expert believes that educating the public - and public safety organizations - about the hazards of hoarding is critical to reducing the problem.
Hoarding behavior can be triggered by abandonment, financial fears or emotional trauma. Without finding help or wanting to change, hoarding can lead to serious problems, according to Linda Buscemi, chairman for the Arizona Hoarding Task Force and behavioral health coordinator for the Geriatric and Hoarding Institute in Phoenix
However, Buscemi hopes to propose legislation in the near future that would require hoarders to go through a series of counseling sessions because without help, they will just continue to let items and debris pile up in their home.
"Hoarding is causing a safety hazard for sure," Buscemi said. "Public safety officials have to do their jobs and protect someone's home. Right now, there's very few resources and very few professionals looking into how to do the treatment for it. It's going to continue to be a problem until we get mandates in place or there's more professionals willing to learn more about how to treat it. It's not only a health issue for the hoarder, but it affects their neighbors, it affects their loved ones.
Buscemi said hoarders stay comfortable with their possessions and not being able to get rid of things because to do so causes them anxiety and stress.
"Hoarders do not like change and they experience anxiety whenever someone handles what they believe are valuable possessions or they tell them to get rid of it," she said. "People need to be educated about this and know that help is available."
On Jan. 24, Tempe firefighters struggled to put out a fire at the home of another hoarder. The blaze was believed to have been started by a space heater left running by someone in the home.
In that home, newspapers and crushed beer cans were piled several feet deep and smashed cardboard beer cases were stacked to the ceiling.
It was so bad that crews had to break down the door and crawl over the debris to get through.
"Here you already have a fire, but there's more items in the home that are more combustible," Smith said. "It makes it difficult for crews to stay ahead of the fire."
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