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Hoarded items bury man killed in house fire

Dick Harris, Portland Fire & Rescue.

A Portland, Ore., man died in an early morning blaze at 1307 NE 111th. Firefighters say they had difficulty finding the victim because there was so much clutter in the home.

A Portland, Ore., man died in an early morning blaze after firefighters had trouble reaching him because his home was filled with clutter and hoarded items, an official said.

“There was so much stuff in the house, it was difficult to find the back bedroom and the bed” where the victim was discovered, Portland Fire Bureau spokesman Paul Corah told msnbc.com.

When firefighters finally reached the man, they “took him off the bed, and more stuff fell on him,” Corah said.

The exact cause of death hasn’t been determined but the victim was identified by NBC station KGW as Thomas Owen, 67.  The cause of the fire is still under investigation. 

Corah said the fire marks the second this week in Portland in which firefighters have been hindered in their ability to navigate inside a burning home because of excessive clutter.  No one was injured in that Tuesday blaze, according to the fire department.

“It’s dangerous for firefighters to go inside these houses,” he said. “It’s a big issue.”

Firefighters, already challenged by heavy smoke and heat, can’t rely on typical strategies to conduct a search and rescue in such circumstances.

"I feel what should be a desk or a couch or a wall, and it's a pile of garbage," firefighter Chris Fukai told KGW. "Makes it an uncomfortable search, because the typical landmarks aren't there."

A person with compulsive hoarding typically collects and keeps a lot of items, even things that appear useless, according to the International OCD Foundation, a not-for-profit support organization for people with obsessive compulsive disorder and related problems. The problem of hoarding is believed to affect between 6 million and 15 million Americans.

Corah said he wants to raise awareness of the issue so that people can get help, before the excessive clutter becomes a fire hazard.

“We’re seeing hoarding happen in all areas of the city,” he said. When asked why the problem has become more apparent, Corah said: “We’re all struggling with that question.”

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