Woman dies after house fire, authorities say hoarding conditions found

Victim was asleep when fire started
Posted at 7:18 AM, May 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-23 18:23:52-04

A woman died Monday night after a fire started in her house that authorities described as an extreme hoarding situation. 

Milwaukee police say the fire happened around 10:30 p.m. near the intersection of 80th Street and Mill Road.

Police say the victim was asleep inside her residence when the fire started. Firefighters who responded to the home were met with hoarding conditions so dangerous they could not carry the woman out the way they came and instead had to saw a door in her bedroom wall. 

Milwaukee Fire Deputy Chief Aaron Lipski says crews found extremely tight passageways and items stacked two or three feet off the ground. He said his firefighters made the smart decision to attempt to rescue her through the back wall. 

"Horribly tragic end to the story," Lipski said. "Because of these delays and these difficulties, we do in fact have a deceased individual at the end of the day." 

First responders treated the woman at the scene but she later died at the hospital. 

In Milwaukee County, there are an estimated 30,000 people dealing with some form of a hoarding disorder, according to Carla Alejo who leads one of the few programs aimed at helping people in these conditions. 

"Hoarding happens behind closed doors and people are ashamed and overwhelmed, they don't know where to go for help," Alejo said, who is the director of in-home support and hoarding intervention and treatment at Catholic Charities. 

She has been helping people for years through Catholic Charities and helped launch the Milwaukee County Hoarding Task Force in 2013. 

But only about a month ago did they form a more comprehensive program that not only helps a person clean up their home, but also addresses the root causes of hoarding. Therapists meet with clients in their home and they also address financial and emotional triggers. 

"Hoarding throughout the years has had a lot of stigma to it," Alejo said. "They think that people are dirty, they're unintelligent or they're lazy and that's the furthest from the truth. People who suffer from hoarding disorder are very intelligent, they've just come to a point in their life where they're overwhelmed and they don't know where to turn." 

She says they will never turn someone away who needs help addressing a hoarding disorder, but they do struggle with funding to meet the demand. Right now, they have about 30 people in the program, with several others on a waiting list. 

The cause of Monday's fire has yet to be determined but Lipski says it started in her basement. There were no working smoke alarms in the home. 

Additional resources to help someone struggling with a hoarding disorder can be found here.

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