Second blaze fuels worries about people who hoard
Firefighters battled more than flames when they entered a mansion last week. The house on Brush Hill Road was filled with years’ worth of clutter. Mounds of old newspapers, furniture and other items fueled the fire and made it difficult for firefighters to get into the house to look for survivors.
Milton firefighters had encountered a similar scene at a house on Mathaurs Street less than two months earlier. Both houses were occupied by people who hoarded everyday items and filled their homes from floor to ceiling.
Robert Kane, 59, died in the second-floor bathroom of his Mathaurs Street home in February. After the house caught fire, firefighters were unable to reach him in time.
Last week, Valerie Boyle, 60, escaped the blaze at the Brush Hill Road home. Boyle told firefighters that she accidentally started the fire with a cigarette in a second-floor bedroom.
The house did not have running water or heat. Milton fire officials had been told by a family member that the mansion was vacant.
Edward Flynn, executive director of South Shore Elder Services, said if no laws are broken, there is little that can be done about the safety threat.
“We try to work with a person but, essentially, people have an absolute right to determine how they want to live,” Flynn said.
“It may not be the way you or I would choose to live, but the law is based on competency and self-determination,” he said.
Flynn said his agency investigates incidents of abuse and neglect.
Hoarding isn’t a clear-cut issue, but it is a growing problem, he said.
In extreme cases, homeowners can be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, Flynn said.
Fire prevention officers had been to both Milton homes to warn the occupants of the risks in the event of a fire.
The Kane family was forced by the building inspector to clean the house and yard, but the junk was back within a few years.
Police inspected the Boyle home in February 2007, but no action was taken.
Six months later, an anonymous letter from a neighbor to the board of health prompted another look at the Boyle house.
Fire Chief Malcolm Larson said Lt. Brad Ellis, the department’s fire prevention officer, was told the house was vacant and that tthere was no running water or heat.
No action was taken because the house was believed to be empty.
Larson said some homeowners will not even let fire department personnel in to look around.
“People don’t have to let you in,” he said. “Some are strong-willed and stubborn. They slam the door in your face or threaten to call the police.”
Town Health Director Michael Blanchard said his office did not know that there was no running water or heat at 685 Brush Hill Road until after the April 1 fire.
Council on Aging Director Mary Ann Sullivan said an outreach worker went to visit Boyle but was not allowed inside.
“We have been trying to make headway there for two years, but we don’t have the legal authority,” she said.
Sullivan said she can name at least four other homes in Milton being lived in by hoarders, a situation that prompted a meeting between Sullivan, Larson, Blanchard and others last week after the Boyle fire.
“We can’t let this happen again,” Sullivan said.
L.E. Campenella is at firstname.lastname@example.org.