Larimer County reaches out to fire survivors

How can you deck the halls if you have no halls — or walls, or roof? You can’t go home for the holidays if your home has burnt to the ground, and survivors of this summer’s High Park and Woodland Heights fires are feeling anything but jolly this holiday season.

“You can’t escape the holiday hype in our culture,” said Neil Rosenthal, a Boulder-based therapist who has lost two homes to mountain wildfires. “You’re supposed to be happy and joyous and celebrate. But if you’ve suffered a devastating loss, the reality is ridiculously far from that ideal.”

Neil Rosenthal

Rosenthal presented a workshop in Fort Collins in October for fire survivors on how to heal. He said the reality is that people are still working through the loss of their homes and everything in them, and the overwhelming feelings of emptiness, aloneness and loneliness that entails. Some are still fighting with their insurance company, some are fighting to find their emotional equilibrium.

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“For some people, their identity is tied up in their home,” he said. “For all of us, our environment, our familiar surroundings, is what grounds us. When all of that is gone, it’s very disorienting, and adjusting to a new reality is absurdly difficult.”

What Rosenthal learned after the Four Mile Canyon Fire in 2010 is that picking up the pieces of your life after a fire takes a long time and is extremely tiring.

“Most (High Park survivors) are probably exhausted by this point, and many don’t understand how exhausted they are,” he said. “Few understand how long that exhaustion will last.”

It may not be in the nature of people who choose to live in the Colorado mountains to ask for help. But Rosenthal said even though we may have survived something other people couldn’t, there are times when we have to admit we can’t do it all ourselves.

And he’s not talking just about rebuilding structures. Long-term recovery means rebuilding stability and emotional health as well.

Larimer County’s fire recovery effort includes the services of a half-dozen counselors who can connect survivors with the support they need. The Mountain Outreach Team is funded through a one-year Federal Emergency Management Agency grant administered by Touchstone Health Partners, formerly Larimer Center for Mental Health.

The team includes Ruth “Max” Bourke, Julia Edelstein, Monty Knobel, Kris Jabs, Pete Keohane and team leader Derek Gaarder. They were on scene at The Ranch evacuation center during the fire and have been working out of an office in the Foothills Mall, next to the now-closed ACS Donation Distribution Center, since August.

Their mission is to contact every individual affected by the High Park and Woodland Heights fires, whether they lost homes or were evacuated for a few hours or anything in between, and put them in touch with resources on the local, county, state and federal levels.

Door to door, RV to RV
It’s tough to go door-to-door when there are no doors left, but that’s where the team started.
“We’ve been going to all the neighborhoods in the burn area, trying to reach people, and we’ve talked to people living in tents and RVs, as well as those in temporary housing,” Gaarder said. “We’ve been making phone calls, emailing and using word-of-mouth to find everyone. We’ve talked to about 95 percent of residents so far.”

Jabs, Keohane and Gaarder were on the ground in Windsor after the 2008 tornado and know how natural disasters affect both individuals and communities. In the first month of operation, the team provided 22 counseling sessions to families and individuals struggling with the impact of losing everything, dealing with insurance, rebuilding their homes and their lives. They’ve also been working with the Long-Term Recovery Group case managers to help those with unmet needs.

Gaarder said another part of the mission is to help local support networks that will continue once the team disbands in July when the grant funding ends. They plan to begin group sessions that can help foster resiliency and allow survivors to support each other as they rebuild their community. After the holiday season, the team will become more involved in educational presentations on a variety of topics.

The team may have its work cut out. Rosenthal said that the admirable traits that lead people to live in the mountains — a stubborn independence and desire to take care of their own — are the very traits that make it hard for them to ask for help or accept it when it is offered, even if they would be happier if they did.

“Not everyone is as resilient as they think they are,” he added.

The Mountain Outreach Team can be reached at 970-494-4245, or by email at The team also updates its Facebook page at Mountain Outreach Team and Twitter account @MtnOutreachTeam on a regular basis.