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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Boulder is Burning

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 10th 2010

Boulder is BurningAt present(Sept. 2010), we live in the city of Boulder Colorado. Twelve miles away, in the nearby mountains, a fire rages. The fire is not in the City of Boulder but is in the County of Boulder. Thus far, it has resulted in the destruction of 135 homes that people lived in for decades. While the inhabitants were evacuated and relocated in shelters or with friends and neighbors, all of them are facing the consequences of the fire: trauma, loss and grief. It's something of a miracle that no one has lost their life or even been injured in this forest fire. It is also true that most homeowners will receive insurance reimbursement for purposes of rebuilding or relocating. However, the problem is much deeper than fire insurance and house replacement.

The survivors of this fire state, over and again, that they lost not only a house but a life time of memories, collectibles, mementos, souvenirs, photographs, computers and even businesses run out of their houses. None of these things are replaceable.  A few people who rented their homes in the region did not have rental insurance and will receive no monetary compensation for their losses. Also, in several cases, owners had gradually built and expanded their houses over many years. This was done through their own "sweat equity." Money cannot rebuild something that has taken years to build by hand.

It will also take many years for the many trees that burned to grow back and for the natural beauty of the place to be restored.

At present, when the fire continues to rage, most of these people can admit to regret but have admitted that the real consequences have not sunken in. What they face is having to truly go through a period of mourning their losses.

Dangerous Places:

However, there is another dimension to this story that I want to focus on. It is a phenomenon that holds true in many places throughout the United States and the world. The phenomenon is that people choose to live in dangerous places. You see, the area that is burning is a well know fire zone. This is the worst but far from the only fire in or near this region of Colorado.

In a way similar to these Boulder Colorado residents, people choose to live in the flood zones of Louisiana, Mississippi and elsewhere. In Florida and elsewhere, people choose to build houses in the direct path of hurricanes. What motivates these people?

As one survivor of the Colorado fire stated, "He treasured living in the mountains, with wildlife in his backyard." This magnificently beautiful part of the world is inhabited by bears, mountain lions and other predators that come visiting at night from time to time. Whether its Florida or elsewhere, people live in areas that they value, despite the dangers, because they love culture, beauty, history and geography of a place. That is why so many have returned to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.


The fact is that we make intimate connections not only to people but to places and things. It has been pointed out by others that relationships always pose some type of risk. There are no guarantees when falling in love with someone that it will last forever. Nevertheless, we take the risk because we want the closeness and warmth. It is also true with places and things. Neighbors, neighborhoods, treasures, and other material items become deeply important to all of us and we mourn when they are lost, just as though a life has been lost.

What the victims of the fires in Boulder County lost is a part of themselves, their psyches, their personal lives, things they hold dear and close to themselves. Lets hope they can succeed in going through the mourning process and rebuild their lives.

Your comments are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

My fire - Mary - Nov 2nd 2010

I first hand know what these people are experiencing.  On March 29, 2009 our house burned to the ground.  My husband was in treatment for stage 4 head and neck cancer.  We were in the house when it caught on fire and had to run for our lives.  We thought for a short period of time that our son was trapped in the basement but was outside.  I aged 10 years in those few moments of horror.

Their biggest challenge is yet to come.  The rebuild or the decision to move on and not go back.  I rebuilt and to this day regret doing so.  I went through the pain of 5 builders ripping me off and when the house was finished, the nightmares begin.  I could smell smoke all the time (that is not there) and now I am dealing with depression.  The builder that did the house left me with liens on my property and we are having to declare bankruptcy.  We are financially ruined by our fire.  The one really great thing is my husband is in remission and though it all we still have each other and for that I will always be grateful.

My advice is to get a good Doctor and work on the mental issues before making any decisions on rebuilding.  Like I said, if I could I would have taken the money from the insurance company and never rebuilt.

Grief Experienced - Jane Harber - Sep 12th 2010

You're absolutely right! What the people in Boulder County have lost is far more extensive than the bricks, wood & mortar it took to build the structures that they lived in. They lost irreplaceable items that they have collected for the lifetime that they lived there.

Grief is a normal, natural response to this tragedy. It astounds me that even in this day and age there are so many discussions as to what grief entails, as opposed to depression ... how long should the client be "allowed" to grieve before it's considered a major depressive affliction ... is grief only appropriate at the loss of a loved one, and all other losses are considered to be depression ... and on and on. 

These people are grieving at this tragedy because it IS bad! It is my prayer that they eventually discover the hope that is beyond tragedy and trauma.

Jane Harber, author

One Foot on a Banana Peel

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