As Lieutenant Gordon Ambelas tore through the burning Brooklyn high-rise in search of victims last July, he fought back not only smoke and flames, but junk.
The apartment's resident had stashed piles of trophies, luggage, and other trinkets around his home. “You could walk in, but you couldn't turn," one neighbor said. Within minutes, Ambelas was carried out unconscious and badly burned. Within hours, he was dead.
That’s far from the only time hoarding has made a house fire much more dangerous. Earlier this month an Ohio firefighter was hurt in a fire where hoarding was so severe that firefighters couldn't enter part of the house. This week, two people died in a Queens, New York, house described as having “hoarding conditions.”
Last week, firefighters from 14 different parts of New Hampshire were called to a single fire. The cause of the blaze might never be known, the local fire chief said, because layers of pet feces and other waste coated the floor.
Earlier this week I attended a fire-fighting gathering in Maryland. It was only a simulation, but I got a sense of how difficult it must be to fight a live fire. It’s fairly typical for firefighters to encounter dense smoke, but occasionally they must also work in total darkness. They feel along walls with their thick gloves for signs of human life. If they stay inside a burning structure for too long, they risk running out of air. The maze-like conditions created by stacks of newspapers or Christmas ornaments make every step of this process harder.