Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Collecting trouble

Laura King   

Features Structural Training

Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek used blunt language to describe the worst hoarding fire in Canada, the September 2010 highrise fire at 200 Wellesley St. in Toronto:
The tremendous growth and spread of the fire was a result of the excessive amount of combustible materials stored on the balcony and in the suite of origin . . .

Ontario Fire Marshal Ted Wieclawek used blunt language to describe the worst hoarding fire in Canada, the September 2010 highrise fire at 200 Wellesley St. in Toronto: The tremendous growth and spread of the fire was a result of the excessive amount of combustible materials stored on the balcony and in the suite of origin . . .

Fire departments have several options when dealing with hoarders but are advised to partner with social agencies that understand the delicacies of the illness. Photo courtesy Toronto Fire Services


In the context of this large multi-unit dwelling, the intensity of the fire hampered firefighting efforts of Toronto Fire Services and created a significant risk to first responders and those attempting to evacuate the building.

This was due to the excessive amount of materials stored on the balcony, which well exceeded the height of the safety railing, and combustible materials that were stored at a significant depth throughout the apartment.


Given the amount of these combustible materials, the dwelling was no longer being used for its intended purpose and could have physically trapped an individual inside.

With two mayday calls from downed firefighters during the fire fight, the consequences were almost tragic.

Indeed, the fuel load in apartment 2424 at 200 Wellesley St. was so overwhelming that firefighters could open the apartment door just 18 inches and had to force it the rest of the way.

The story of 200 Wellesley St. (see the December 2010 issue of Fire Fighting in Canada) is familiar to firefighters and fire-service leaders as likely the worst example to date of the crises that hoarding can cause for tenants, landlords, firefighters and other emergency responders, and social and municipal agencies.

Although agencies from public health to community housing and fire and police forces are now involved in hoarding task forces, such as that in Durham Region in southwestern Ontario, the bulk of the hoarding-prevention efforts have landed squarely in the laps of many Canadian fire services.

What can the fire service do to prevent hoarding and the dangers that it causes for first responders?

•       •       •

To deal with hoarding, fire departments first need to understand it.

Hoarding is complicated. According to Toronto Public Health nurse Alanna Barr, hoarding is an equal-opportunity concern, meaning that it can be found in all cultures, income groups and education levels. The mean age of the onset of hoarding symptoms is 13.

Barr says hoarding is considered compulsive when it impairs daily living. Essentially, hoarding involves the acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of things or animals.

“Most people are able to say, ‘I’ll never use that in a lifetime,’ and discard it,” Barr told a workshop of fire engineers in Toronto in May. “But for the hoarder, it’s the thrill of the acquisition. They have no insight or understanding that they shouldn’t have bought 100 cans of tuna.” Barr says the proliferation of dollar stores makes it easy and affordable for hoarders to keep buying more things.

Collectors usually take pride in their items and look after them. Hoarders, on the other hand, are compulsive and often become so overwhelmed by the extent of their acquisitions that they can’t sort their possessions. This can lead to unsafe and unhealthy conditions.

Public-health experts and psychologists have identified two types of hoarders: generalists save everything from valuable items to human waste; specialists save one or more specific categories of items, such as newspapers or angels.

Ulla Wise, a consultant and mental-health nurse with Toronto Public Health, says hoarding is not considered a mental illness, rather it is categorized as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so treatment is still elusive. (She says a combination of medication and cognitive behaviour therapy has proven effective but only if the patient is motivated, has access to certain resources, and other conditions that impact the behaviour are also addressed.)

Experts do know, however, that hoarders generally don’t recognize the danger caused by mountains of combustible goods and the resulting lack of cleanliness. And they often resent accusations of wrong-doing and become hostile toward those who don’t respect their possessions. That’s why dealing with hoarders is best left to social agencies and trained personnel, including fire-prevention officers, rather than firefighters at a scene.

•       •       •

Hoarding is often discovered by fire inspectors. The problem is that orders for removal of clutter cannot be issued if there are no fire-code violations, and that limits the options for changing this type of behaviour. Public-health experts say that encouraging hoarders to put items into storage to increase available space and allow for cleanup doesn’t work because hoarders need to be able to see their things. Generally, removing items from a home or apartment is ineffective; doing so has a dramatic, negative impact on the hoarder and the hoarder will simply replace the items.

Nancy Macdonald-Duncan was the regional prosecutor in St. Catharines, Ont., for several years before joining the Office of the Fire Marshal in Ontario in 2008. She says hoarding can be addressed only through a comprehensive approach that involves co-operation among agencies.

Besides the familiar TV scenes of ceiling-high piles of clutter, she says hoarding often involves:

  • Temporary wiring;
  • Charged appliances buried in debris;
  • Volumes of stacked items that lead to entanglements of wires/cords;
  • Exposure to toxins from crushed containers.

Speaking to the fire engineers and specifically targeting Ontario (but noting that other provinces have similar legislation), Macdonald-Duncan said fire departments have several legal options under which to address hoarding, including sections of the Fire Protection and Prevention Act dealing with immediate threat to life, inspection orders, compliance orders and cost recovery.

Under immediate threat to life, two factors must be present: the risk of fire must be imminent and there must be a risk to life. In such cases, an assistant to the fire marshal can remove people, post a fire watch, remove combustibles and dispose of materials. The fire marshal can also eliminate ignition sources, make repairs to fire-safety systems, install temporary safeguards and do other things required to remove or reduce the threat to life safety.

Macdonald-Duncan says hoarding action plans should include:

  • Careful study of the applicable legislation to determine which tools to use;
  • Co-ordination with support agencies, family, the building superintendent and animal control (if necessary);
  • A complete inspection of the building;
  • Sharing information with the suppression team and a pre-plan for the building.

She urges fire departments to develop operational guidelines for hoarding situations and establish working groups with local property managers so everyone is aware of the issues and understands the processes and policies.

“We are seeing more and more of this,” she said. “It would not be unbelievable to say that every community has them.”

•       •       •

The hoarding task force in the Regional Municipality of Durham, to the east of Toronto, is trying a soft approach.

“Obviously, firefighter safety is No. 1,” says Robbie Lee, the fire-prevention inspector with Ajax Fire and Emergency Services.

But he says mental-health experts working with fire, police and social agencies on the task force have advised that building a stable of resources and trained experts to help the fire department deal with hoarding might be preferable to legal action in some situations.

“We don’t want to be the person who comes in and barks orders,” Lee says. “We want to make it so that we’re there for their safety, so we’re trying to get on board with the mental-health organizations. Our primary purpose in this is to provide life safety. We are taking the light-handed approach and we’ll see if that will work. We’re focusing on the person, not the stuff.”

In Toronto, where there are 550,000 highrise units and a high risk of fire spreading and affecting multiple tenants, the fire department has proposed a fire-safety public-education campaign focusing on multi-residential buildings.

In a budget briefing note, Toronto Fire Services (TFS) says it can “invoke remediation measures to ensure compliance with orders to eliminate fire code violations but cannot address the social and behavioural aspects.”

The proposed campaign – which is on record but has not yet been considered in budget deliberations – includes development of literature to educate staff, stakeholders and the public, and the distribution of brochures through community organizations, health professionals, tenant and landlord organizations, fire-safety presentations and media.

According to the budget briefing note, TFS would develop follow-up, maintenance and evaluation guidelines for situations in which hoarding has been identified, and a database of hoarding calls, complaints, inspections and follow-up calls to help the department when dealing with persistent hoarding issues in highrises.

TFS also recommends the scheduling of evening fire-prevention/education sessions to reach residents who work during the day. This would involve overtime costs for TFS staff.

As the briefing paper notes, hoarding has been identified as behaviour that is difficult to change and there is a high degree of recurrence. For fire personnel used to working within the boundaries of very specific fireground policies, dealing with hoarders can be difficult and frustrating. The best advice from public- and mental-health experts is to set up teams and policies so that the fire department can call the right agencies when help is needed.

“The tipping point for municipal intervention is quite high,” says Wise, the mental-health nurse. “But it can be catastrophic, as we’ve seen at 200 Wellesley.”

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