State building and fire codes give authorities access to property outside and to the interior of buildings with three residential units or more. But single- and two-family homes are exempt from most regulations.
"If you want to live like a pack rat, there's not a lot anyone can do," says Tennant. "We have ordered the removal of large piles of brush, tires, etc., but inside, we have no authority at all."
Public education officer Carol Nolte says the state Fire Marshal's Office has never pursued any regulatory change when it comes to one- and two-family dwellings. By necessity, she says, it focuses primarily on high-occupancy spaces such as schools, nursing homes, hospitals and government buildings.
"There are smoke alarm and carbon monoxide alarm requirements for certain residential occupancies," Nolte says, "but there again, nothing specifically dealing with excessive amounts of trash or belongings."
In March, authorities in Wayland, Mass., blamed hoarding for the death of an elderly man in a house fire. He'd piled too much stuff on an overloaded extension cord, and investigators said escape was nearly impossible.
Last December in North Carolina, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police cited similar circumstances in the death of a man whose home had been filled with combustible material and whose door was partially blocked.
Nolte says her office knows of no hoarding-related deaths or injuries in West Virginia, "but that's not to say there haven't been."
Michael and Morgantown Fire Chief Mark Caravasos say they're not patrolling the streets, looking for problem houses. Nor are they looking to interfere with genuine collectors.
"But when we come across it," Caravasos says, "we document it now."
The Monongalia County 911 center is informed, the buildings tagged internally as an "overloaded structure" so responding firefighters, police officers and ambulance crews know what they're getting into.
"If you choose to live in an unsafe situation, that's your choice," Caravasos says. "That doesn't mean my firefighters have to go into that unsafe situation.
"We're not looking to embarrass people or take anyone's livelihood away," he adds. "A man's home is his castle, and you should be able to do what you want to. But we have the right to know when we're entering a very dangerous situation."
Recently, Caravasos says, firefighters donned Tyvek suits and breathing devices in answering a resident's complaint about a neighboring animal hoarder. The odor of feces was so strong they could smell it from the street.
"It's your own home, but at what point does this become a public health hazard?" he says. "It's a regulatory gray area."