The story below is from my brother Danny who is a Fireman for the City of Richmond assigned to Rescue Company 2. This is a first hand detailed account of the difficulties and challenges firefighters face every day in hoarding or heavy content fires. While Danny usually leaves the writing to me, I think it’s safe to say he can hold his own on the fireground and with the written word. Enjoy and as usual thanks for reading, spread the word, and stay safe!
My Hoarding Experience
Fireman Danny Owens
Rescue Co. 2
I had always heard the horror stories of fires that involved “hoarding conditions” and I guess I was very naïve that it would never happen to us. Well IT DID!!!! This writing is to inform and educate other fire service members of my firsthand account of a fire we experienced just this past week involving a house on fire with “hoarding conditions”.
It was a normal day at the firehouse on shift. The duties of the day were winding down and dinner was being cooked. We had just finished our daily training which today consisted of just watching and discussing some fire videos on YouTube. We had been in a fire season slump so far and most of us contribute that to our “white cloud” on our crew; then it happened, 2 beeps and tones dropped. 4 engines/quints, Rescue Company, Battalion Chief and the shift safety officer dispatched for a residential fire with multiple calls coming in stating there is an elderly female trapped inside. This was just the beginning.
We geared up loaded up the rig and head to the fire. About half way there more reports started coming in that the house was in fact on fire and neighbors were positive the elderly lady was still inside. Now we are all taught to expect fire on every run but in reality we all get amped up for what sounds like a “real” fire especially if you haven’t had one in awhile, throw in the key words of “person trapped” and that will amp you up just a little a bit higher especially if you’re riding in the rescue company. In my department the rescues do a bulk of the searching and that’s what I am assigned to. We get to the area of town where the fire is, about a 3 minute ride running code 3 and we see the lovely “smoke in the sky”. We turn the corner on the cross street park the rig and unload, there is so much smoke in the street you can barely tell which house is even on fire. I grab my assigned tools which is a 2nd set of irons and I’m not going to lie I flat out ran up the street trying to get a glimpse of the big picture. Our company rides with 4 fireman and officer, we take advantage of having a big crew so we split up and get multiple jobs done at 1 time. Our officer ended up taking command of this fire from the acting Lieutenant of the 1st due engine, our driver gears up and handles outside truck company duties and the rest of us go inside and perform search and rescue duties. As we hastily approach the house numerous neighbors are yelling that they are positive the elderly lady is in there as black smoke pushes from the eaves of the 2nd floor. I stopped to mask up as the nozzle man stretches the line, my partner had gone up to check the front door which he found unlocked so he opened it to check the conditions and to see if the lady was near the door; she was not but what we found on the other side would drastically change this operation from a “ordinary” house fire to a bigger challenge.
When my partner opened the door all you could see was fire and piles and piles of flat out “junk”!!! At that point we knew we had a BIG problem on our hands. The fire started coming towards us as we waited at the door for the line, I attempted to close the door back with my halligan but there was so much junk on the floor it wouldn’t close completely. By the time the line was charged and ready fire was licking over our heads in the doorway, the nozzle man it the fire from there and went ahead and entered the house to start our search. At first we headed to the stairs knowing that if anyone was trapped above the fire that they would be in most danger. We got about 10-15 feet inside the house and hit a dead stop in progress due to the amount of fire and the numerous piles of “junk” as I will call it. You couldn’t even make out what all this stuff was there were clothes, papers, desks, chairs, furniture, etc etc piled up about 4-5 foot high as far as the eye could see!!! As this point fire started showing itself on the 2nd floor through the roof on the “C” side and was reported by the Battalion Chief who had pulled up on scene in the alley. We could still not find the stairs so my partner and I exited back out the front door and went around back to try and get a better path to the stairs. We forced the back door and found the stairs within 5 feet but who would guess that the stairs were blocked by another pile of junk!! At this point we had done a good primary on the first floor and when we had gone around back people were still telling the commander that they were absolutely positive the lady was home was trapped inside the house. This obviously amped up the situation even more. We knew we had to get to that 2nd floor or this lady was going to be a goner sooner than later.
With the assistance of another company we started to clear a path to the 2nd floor which where we were met with fire and heavy heat conditions as we called for a 2nd line one of our crew members low air alarm started sounding so we notified command we were exiting to change bottles and to send another crew to the 2nd floor with the line to continue our search. We changed bottles in what felt like less than a minute and once again were fighting our way back up the stairs. We couldn’t make it past the top of the landing because of the fire conditions and parts of the floor had started to deteriorate. At this time we still had not found the resident and the commanders made the decision to call us down from the 2nd floor until we could get the fire knocked down and make a better recon of the stability of the 2nd floor.
We exited the house and reported to command what we saw and what the conditions were and then were sent to rehab. It was fairly somber sitting around in rehab at least in my opinion knowing that we did not find the lady but also knowing we did the best job we could with the conditions we were dealt. After being in rehab for awhile we received the good news that the lady had showed up at the scene saw her house was on fire and left again without a care in the world!!! This is where I began to think about what we had just put ourselves through and how dangerous it was and it angered me. Here we are disregarding our own safety to try and find this lady who wasn’t even home and who didn’t even care her house had caught on fire.
In conclusion this fire was very challenging and had many variables that could have easily gotten one of us hurt or killed. I have been to hoarding fires before but it was nowhere near this scale of stress and drama. We went from normal bread and butter house on fire person trapped and going “All In” to “WOAH NELLY let’s take a step back” and do this as “knowledgably aggressive” as possible and that’s exactly what we did. The term “knowledgably aggressive” is my way of saying that being aggressive is ok as long as you’re smart about it and you’re educated and aware of the situations you’re faced with. My crew communicated great and we each knew what the other was thinking. We operated safely as possible but we were taking risks because in our heads we thought someone was in there. Every sign pointed to there being a person trapped. Everyone on scene operated safely within the hoarding conditions and I hope it was an eye opener for everyone else as much as it was for me. We as a fire service cannot approach these incidents as your normal bread and butter type house fires. These events are becoming more and more common and you need to be prepared for anything when you open that front door. I hope our experience at this particular fire helps other firefighters educate themselves on these scenarios in the future.