The trouble with hoarding is that it’s invisible to authorities until it’s reported, or a problem occurs.
View Royal Fire Rescue Asst. Chief Rob Marshall, in charge of administration and community services, said hoarding is an issue they are starting to see more frequently.
“We’ve had two or three cases within the last year,” he said. “Fortunately, we were able to work them out with the homeowner … In cases where people are trying to keep too much in too small a space, educating them on safety risks has taken care of it for most issues.”
Although View Royal Fire Rescue hasn’t encountered cases involving serious mental health issues yet, Marshall said those pose a different set of problems.
“Typically when a call about hoarding comes in, the fire departments are the pointy end of the stick going in first,” he said. “We often see these situations during medical calls.”
Marshall lauded the work of the regional Hoarding Education and Action Team, formed in 2012 to help deal with cases involving mental health issues. HEAT is made up of members of fire departments, Vancouver Island Health Authority staff, bylaw enforcement, volunteers and removal services, and is called in when fire departments determine there may be serious safety risks.
The risks could apply not only to the person hoarding, but to homes and structures nearby, and even firefighters.
Firefighters assess the severity of the problem, especially safety hazards, which can include piles of flammable material near heat sources, blocked exits and more.
“It can be extremely dangerous for us responding to a fire,” Marshall explained. “Does it obstruct firefighters getting out, are there objects that could fall? Some of the smoke from items stored can cause smoke that’s extremely toxic as well.”
Past experience tells him the situation seems to be more prevalent in trailers and RVs.
“You have people leaving their home and moving into a much smaller space that try and bring all their worldly possessions along with them,” he said.
“The best advice for family, friends or neighbours who are aware of these kinds of situations is to get in touch with their local fire department first. With the HEAT team in place, people who need help will be put in touch with the resources they need. Education is key and people tend to comply when they understand what the risks are.”
Lorne Fletcher, manager of community safety and municipal enforcement for the City of Langford, said complaints regarding hoarding on the outside of premises are infrequent and can be dealt with through existing bylaws.
He noted, however, that Langford’s unsightly premises bylaws only apply to the collection of materials around the exterior of a home or property.
“If people choose to accumulate items inside or live in squalor, that’s not an area where we have authority to take action under provincial law,” Fletcher said.
To get in touch with the Hoarding Education and Action Team, call 250-361-0227, visit viha.ca/health_info/hoarding or call your local fire department.