Preventing a Pile Up
Amid the tidy homes on Dana Point’s Bremerton Street, the house at 33331 stood out.
Boxes and junk would often litter the driveway and side areas, spurring complaints from neighbors and frequent visits from city code enforcement officers. For three years, the city fired off letters and notices of municipal-code violations. City officials met repeatedly with the homeowners, and at one point city staffers even offered to clean up the mess themselves if the residents would just grant them permission.
Time and time again, the residents would make a little progress moving items around, but in the long term, nothing worked. On October 21, the city attorney’s office notified the homeowners Dana Point intended to go to court to ask an Orange County Superior Court judge to order the mess removed.
Tragedy struck first. In the early morning hours of October 30, fire raced through the home, ultimately claiming the lives of Dana Point historian Doris Walker-Smith and her husband, retired Marine Maj. Jack Smith.
While the city’s cleanup efforts had focused on the items on the exterior of the single-story home, firefighters said the inside was crowded, although neatly piled, with personal belongings, too. That made the fire burn more intensely than normal, and made it difficult for firefighters to get in and out. While the Orange County Fire Authority typically fights house fires aggressively, the amount of fuel for the flames prompted firefighters to quickly go defensive at the Bremerton fire—keeping personnel outside the home and dousing it with water while preventing it from spreading to nearby houses.
“Usually we don’t go defensive, but in this case so many items were burning that they made the rescues and went defensive,” OCFA Captain Marc Stone said. “The items inside did hamper the rescues…I’m not saying that’s the reason it became a fatal fire, but I can say that it wasn’t an easy in-and-out for us.”
The cause of the fire was ruled accidental. Fire authorities called on the assistance of Orange County Crew 1, an 11-member hand crew usually assigned to fight vegetation fires, to assist with the dig out and removal of the abundance of debris left by the blaze.
Neighbors said they’d expressed concern after watching the situation grow worse and worse at the home.
“We were always concerned about the conditions next door,” said Bert Bergen. “Jack and Doris were great people; they were always good to us, especially when our children were very young. But the concern was always there that this was something that was out of their control and the clutter inside and outside got progressively worse in the last 10 years or so.”
Patricia Bergen said the couples’ reluctance to let people inside the home was in sharp contrast to the very public life led by Walker-Smith, who’d co-founded the Dana Point Historical Society, authored 13 books and wrote a regular column for the Dana Point Times.
“It seems that they became slave to their stuff, isolating themselves in their home because they were so concerned about all of their things,” she said.
That’s not unusual among people who hoard items, said Mark Odom, a licensed clinical social worker and expert on hoarding who is a consultant to the Orange County Task Force on Hoarding.
Although Odom cautioned he could not speak specifically about the Dana Point case, he said generally hoarding becomes a problem when it impacts a person’s ability to live a normal life—such as having people over—or preventing a room from being used for its intended purpose.
Hoarding is a relatively new area of study, only first truly defined in 1996. It was later made more mainstream when Oprah Winfrey addressed it on her show about a decade ago. Orange County formed the Task Force on Hoarding in 2005, bringing together mental-health experts, code-enforcement specialists, even vector-control experts and others for monthly meetings.
While the number of hoarding cases in Orange County isn’t tracked, Odom said researchers nationally say upward of 5 percent of the adult population has a serious problem with hoarding behaviors. While most people may have a half-dozen possessions they value deeply, people who hoard generally attach a heightened sense of importance and emotional attachment to everything they own, he said.
Walker-Smith’s son Blair Walker declined to discuss the condition of the home but said that many of the items she had collected inside the home were part of his mother’s effort to preserve Dana Point history.
But hoarding is most often a symptom to other problems, not the root problem itself, Odom said. In about 92 percent of the cases studied, those who hoard have another occurring problem, such as major depression, general anxiety or social phobia. About 15 percent have a problem with obsessive-compulsive behavior, and about 20 percent have some form of attention disorder, he said.
That’s why addressing hoarding is difficult.
“The stuff we see when we see the hoarding are generally the symptoms,” Odom said. “When you take away the stuff, reasons for the hoarding are still there so it will reoccur.”
For neighbors, code enforcement is the right step, Odom said. And from a city point of view, handling hoarding issues require a delicate balance.
“It comes down to civil liberties versus civic responsibility,” Odom said. “At what point does the state or government step in? Some communities are more aggressive than others.”
City Manager Doug Chotkevys said Dana Point tries to work toward voluntary compliance on code-enforcement cases. The city provided the Dana Point Times with 25 pages of correspondence between the city and Walker-Smith, noting many home visits and meetings about several instances of municipal-code violations related to the accumulation of items around the house.
The first notice of violation was in July of 2008.
That was followed by several other letters. In February 2010, code enforcement told the homeowners that simply moving debris from one area to another did not constitute a clean-up. In April 2010, code enforcement officer Bill Beattie wrote Walker-Smith a letter thanking them for cleaning up the mess.
“They would comply, but over time, more items would appear,” Chotkevys said.
The city sent more letters in September 2010 about additional violations, all stressing voluntary compliance, and Beattie on September 15 thanked Jack Smith for agreeing to donate some items to clean up around the home. In September, 2011, Beattie even included this paragraph: “At this time, the city would like to offer you help in removing these items from your property.”
“We were doing what we do with all code enforcement cases,” Chotkevys said. “We respect property rights and work with them toward voluntary compliance. Each case have to take on own merit.
“Unless we get voluntary compliance, ultimately we have to go into superior court and prove to an Orange County Superior Court judge that there is a nuisance. If the judge finds there is nuisance, they work with property owner for reasonable schedule to clean it up.”
If that doesn’t work, Chotkevys said, the court will authorize the city to clean it up. That’s a last resort.
“Courts don’t like to go onto private property,” he said. “Living in America, courts have great deference to individual rights and property rights.”
The final letter to Walker-Smith was dated October 21, from the law firm Rutan and Tucker. The letter listed several violations, and warned the next step was court, where each violation could carry six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
“Consider this your final warning,” the letter said.
The Orange County Task Force on Hoarding meets the third Thursday of each month at the Council on Aging-Orange County, 1971 E. 4th Street, Suite 200 in Santa Ana. On February 11, the task force is holding a three-hour public information meeting in Buena Park featuring Michael Tompkins. Author of Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. For more information about that event or hoarding, see http://www.ochealthinfo.com/hoarding.
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Click here to read A Community Loss: Residential Fire Claims the Lives of Dana Point Historian Doris Walker-Smith and Husband Jack Smith, a tribute to Doris Walker-Smith’s many contributions to the community and the legacy she left.