Safety at Home: Top 5 Risks in a Hoarded Environment

October 25, 2015 by

Excessive accumulation and a failure to “let go” often creates safety concerns, both for the inhabitants of the hoarded environment, and those who live in adjoining properties, especially if the properties are close or attached.

If a crisis (malfunctioning of electrical, gas, or heat producing appliance) occurs in a hoarded environment, fire is a real possibility. A hoarded environment increases the fuel load and—depending on where the accumulation is located—decreases the options for a safe exit in case of an emergency.  The extent to which the hoarded environment contains combustible items (items that will catch fire and burn) adds to the speed at which the fire will spread and consume the environment and anything inside it.

There is an added risk if flooding occurs when firefighters hose down the inside of a building, unaware that a hoarded environment exists. Absorbent items such as boxes, papers, or furniture will hold the fluid. The accumulation of items, now wet, weigh far more than they did when they were dry. Depending upon the volume of items, the structural integrity of floors may fail. This is a real risk. Floors may collapse, taking possessions and occupants or emergency responders with them.

To assess the safety risks in your environment, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are there TWO clear (totally unobstructed) ways to enter or exit the residence in case of emergency? This is the top fire safety priority to ensure that you (and your family, including your pets) can get out safely in an emergency. If you were in need of medical attention, would there be a clear path for paramedics to bring in a stretcher to assist you? Consult your local Fire Inspection Branch to learn about the enforceable standards in your area.
  2. Is there a safe way to enter and exit each room in the house? Do the doors in the rooms open all the way? Are staircases clear of objects? Check with your local fire code requirements for the regulations in your area, but as a general rule, aim to clear a pathway at least 3 feet wide through the rooms, with piles no higher than your waist. If piles are too high, the risk of toppling increases; toppling in turn, increases the risk that you could be injured if a pile of items falls on you, or items catch fire. Without a clear pathway through rooms, the risk that you may trip over objects and be injured also increases substantially.
  3. Are all areas near a heat or ignition source (such as a hot water tank, furnace, stove, portable heaters, woodstoves, fireplaces, baseboard heaters, or uncovered light bulbs) clear of items that will burn? Is there clear access to the electrical panel? Elaine works with clients to clear and maintain at least three feet of clear space around hot water tanks and furnaces, and a clear path to the electrical panel. This is a critical step to reduce the fire risk in a hoarded home.
  4. Do you have extension cords connected to one or more outlets on a permanent basis? Extension cords are a tripping hazard, and are vulnerable to vermin such as mice and rats chewing on them and starting a fire. It is never recommended that you use extension cords in place of an adequate number of permanently-wired electrical outlets connected to the main electrical panel.
  5. Do you have working smoke detectors on each level of your home? As in any home, working smoke detectors can save you and your family precious time to escape in the event of a fire.

If YOU, or SOMEONE YOU LOVE, live in an environment with any of the above safety hazards, it is important that you make it a priority to reduce the risks as soon as possible. Try to make the suggested improvements over the next month, and if you are not making progress, reach out for professional help. Your life may depend on it.


Check out for more information about hoarding and watch for the new book entitled Clearing the Path: Take Back Your Life When Your Things are Taking Over by Elaine Birchall and Suzanne Cronkwright COMING SOON. Follow us on twitter @Clearingthepath or Facebook at Clearingthepathbook.

About the Authors

Elaine Birchall MSW RSW

Elaine is recognized as the leading Canadian expert in the field of Hoarding. With over 20 years’ experience as a community based and clinical social worker, she has provided training and consultation to individuals, families, professionals, and community organizations across North America and internationally. In the last three years alone, Elaine has assisted 212 clients/families and over 130 peers, and offered more than 80 training courses and workshops on hoarding to individuals and professionals in North America. She is sought after as a keynote speaker and her work has received frequent acknowledgement in print, radio (U.S.A. and Canada), and television media, including features on W5, Canada AM, and 16x9 The Bigger Picture.  She recently hosted a six-part series with Canadian regional TV, Channel 22 in the Ottawa area.

Suzanne Cronkwright

Suzanne is a successful technical writer, editor, and instructional design professional with over 30 years’ experience in both high tech and government in Canada. She is recognized for her ability to translate complex technical subject matter into simple, clear procedures. Working with Elaine on Clearing the Path has provided a wonderful opportunity for Suzanne to fulfill a lifelong dream of using her writing skills to “make a difference” in the lives of those around her.