This is the first of an occasional series to tell the story of the recovery from the Dec. 30 Marshall fire through the eyes of its victims.

Andrey and Elena Grachev of Louisville celebrated the 18th anniversary — literally the day — of moving into their Centennial Heights home at 104 Vista Lane the morning of Dec. 30.

By midmorning, Andrey Grachev started feeling concern with all the smoke he was seeing coming from the west.

“We were aware that a large grass fire had started near Marshall Road,” said Grachev via an email interview. “This happened before, but I don't remember such hurricane winds, especially during a fire. We did not believe that the flame would reach Louisville. We couldn't even imagine that the flame would jump across U.S. 36 highway into Louisville burning neighborhoods and stores.”

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Wayne Shelnutt, owner of Wayne’s Smoke Shack, looks at the first smoker he had ever owned while surveying the charred remains of his home Jan. 31 in Superior.

It was the last day Brooke was with the Shelnutts before she returned to her mother in Texas, and they wanted to do something special. The trio left their home in the Sagamore neighborhood of Superior about 11 a.m. and while they were eating, Shelnutt noticed this giant plume of smoke in the distance.

“We don’t normally see too many wildfires and big plumes of smoke in the wintertime, so it had my attention, and I was spacing out at lunch,” Shelnutt said. “I just got a really sick feeling in my stomach, and I told (Sam) that we should go see what’s the deal with this fire.”

Bobby Cendali

Bobby Cendali, 29, in happier times at a Denver Broncos football game. Cendali

Meanwhile, 29-year-old Bobby Cendali left the home he rented at 347 Cherokee Ave. in Superior with four other roommates, behind the Target in the Sagamore neighborhood, early Dec. 30 to head to his job at the Chochino Taco in Arvada.

“Our house backed up to some open space. There were great views of the fields and the mountains,” Cendali said of his residence of almost four years.

“About 11:30 a.m., my phone started blowing up from my roommates and family,” he said. “My roommate texted there was a fire behind the house, and we were being evacuated. I showed it to my boss and had to have just looked dumbfounded. He told me just to go and jumped into the kitchen to cover for me.”

These are just three stories of the thousands who were impacted by the deadly 1,600-acre Marshall fire in Boulder County that destroyed almost 1,100 homes and businesses, left hundreds more severely damaged and killed two people. It was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history.

The victims are struggling — some more than others.

They have been overwhelmed with finding a new place to live, some coping with losing everything, deciding whether to rebuild or leave, making time for an abundance of insurance meetings and dealing with post-traumatic stress and depression.

Just over a month after the fire, this is how three of those victims are coping.

Andrey & Elena 104 Vista Ln Louisville

Andrey and Elana Grachev stand in front of their house at 104 Vista Lane in the Centennial Heights neighborhood of Louisville in 2020. Their home of 18 years was destroyed by the Dec. 30 Marshall fire.

“It is frightening how quickly the effects of climate change hit us and a wildfire in winter is certainly one of them.”

Andrey Grachev was a research scientist at the University of Colorado CIRES/NOAA Physical Sciences Lab in Boulder for almost 22 years before retiring. The Grachev family moved to their dream home in 2003 when their son Leonid was in eighth grade.

“I grew up in that house,” he said.

On Dec. 30, Leonid Grachev was driving with his girlfriend from his home in Albuquerque to visit his parents for New Year’s.

“I was literally on the road texting with dad about this grassfire near Superior. A few hours later, they were evacuating the Costco and Dad said they had to evacuate. This was all happening as we were driving there — it really kind of materialized before our eyes,” Leonid Grachev said. “By the time I got there, they were staying with family and friends.”

“We probably had 15-20 minutes to evacuate,” Andrey Grachev said. “As far as I know, the preevacuation order was not issued for Louisville (as it was for Lafayette). Only the evacuation order was immediately issued for Louisville. Therefore, we had very little time to pack. However, all people (myself, my wife Elena, and our daughter Anna), two dogs, cat and all of our cars are fine. We also saved some important documents, a few sets of clothing and laptops.”

At the same time, the Shelnutts raced back to Superior. They soon realized they were the only ones headed into town, while the other side of the road was jampacked with cars leaving. They saw swarms of people pouring out of Whole Foods and Costco “in a mad panic,” but didn't yet realize the blaze was nearby. 

As they inched closer to their neighborhood, the blue sky turned black, and conditions looked ominous. Shelnutt knew they needed to leave, but his daughter Brooke needed to go to the bathroom. She and Samantha ran inside and within 30 seconds, about half an inch of soot and ash filled its floor.

“That was the moment I knew we had to leave,” Shelnutt said. “I threw a jacket for my wife, daughter and I in the car and as I was doing that you could see the back of the neighborhood glowing orange where the houses were catching on fire.”

Within the coming hours, the Shelnutts learned their rental home was destroyed and assumed their restaurant, Wayne’s Smoke Shack, was severely damaged.

“It was bizarre. I didn’t cry the entire day even though I was in disbelief. We had to be parents,” Samantha Shelnutt said. “We were able to keep our brave faces hard even though we were almost numb.”

The Grachevs wouldn’t find out the fate of their family home for almost 24 more agonizing hours.

Bobby Cendali was also trying to get back to his house to see if he could save his possessions, especially his gaming computer and "Star Wars" memorabilia. He did not have renter’s insurance.

“I looked north and I could see the smoke and I was off Ralston Road in Old Town Arvada,” he said. “I went up Wadsworth trying to get close to see if I could run in and get my stuff. But I couldn’t get within a mile of our house. We didn’t really know until much later that night and they had it on the news. I was watching with my friends. We looked on in total bewilderment as they announced the Sagamore neighborhood — our neighborhood — was gone. There was nothing left.”

Every one of the 370 homes in the Sagamore neighborhood in Superior are gone.

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Wayne Shelnutt lifts up a slab of melted and solidified metal that was a wheel of his Jeep while surveying the remains of his home on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, in Superior, Colo.(Timothy Hurst/The Denver Gazette)

“This can’t be real.”

Assessing the damage and the loss is still raw and overwhelming, more than a month later.

“I am still in shock and trying to get back on my feet,” Andrey Grachev said. “In addition, I am totally overwhelmed with various problems, projects and I still have several sensitive deadlines ahead.

“Probably the most valuable things we have lost are old family photos in albums that we did not have time to digitize,” Grachev said. “After all, leaving the house, we thought that we would return in a few hours or the next day and everything would be as before.”

Son Leonid, who is a painting contractor and was only planning on spending a couple of days with his folks, discovered the extent of the destruction early Dec. 31.

“I was able to sneak into town the next day and saw we lost the entire house,” Leonid Grachev said.

After the fire, the family lived with friends in Lafayette. Leonid ended up staying close for another week to help his parents however he could.

“They provided us the entire basement,” said Andrey Grachev, of the family friends who offered shelter. “We are currently renting an AirBnB in Broomfield until March 1. After that we will rent a townhouse in Westminster (we already signed a lease agreement for 12 months).”

Leonid Grachev said he started fundraising for his parents via GoFundMe. He posted their plight on his social media platforms, and his friends rallied.

“Everyone asked what we needed, and we were blessed enough there were people like that to stop and help,” he said. “My mom is a piano teacher and lost her whole studio set at the house, including the grand piano. Someone reached out and bought my mom a brand-new electric keyboard so she can continue to work.”

In the weeks since, the Shelnutts have lost their sense of normality. At first, they didn’t have a home to return to, and on top of that, their 9-year-old restaurant was unable to open due to the damage caused by the blaze and winter storm that struck the region the day after.

“It’s been a lot,” Shelnutt said. “Each day (it’s) gotten a little easier, but there’s no normalcy for us. We lost our business for the interim, but (with that) we both lost our jobs. Outside of each other, we don’t have anything that it once was, so it’s really like starting over again.”

Shelnutt is no stranger to misfortune. He once got caught in floodwaters that flipped his vehicle and sunk it. Even with those memories, he said the fire was much worse.

“Maybe if I was by myself maybe it wouldn’t have been quite as terrifying, but having my pregnant wife and my daughter made it much more terrifying,” he said.

Recently, the Shelnutts found and moved into a rental home in Arvada. Despite being in the beginning stages of recovery, he said he's decided to reopen their business. However, their future living arrangements are uncertain as they haven't decided whether they'll return to Superior. 

“I will never move the business, but as far as living in Superior, it’s almost too soon to (make that) decision,” Shelnutt said.

“I have to go (to the restaurant) a couple of times a week and it really does bring some of the PTSD that comes with tragedies like this. I did want to live as close to the Smoke Shack as possible, but now I probably wouldn’t be able to buy a house in Superior after what happened.”

Despite losing their home and possessions, in the days after the blaze, the Shelnutts said they remained outwardly composed to show their daughter that even with great loss everything will be all right.

“I kept telling my daughter that we’re OK and that’s all that matters,” he said. “I wish she wouldn’t have had to experienced it, but I think it was good for her to see how we reacted to something like that. That we’re lucky we have our lives and were together.”

Cendali was planning to move to a new place to rent, and the new landlord told him he could just move in earlier. Sense of humor intact, he joked about the savings in moving expenses.

“It was crazy. It really was like 'this can’t be real',” he said. “I just wanted to go lay in my room.”

He didn’t have renter’s insurance but never thought something like this could happen.

“All the stuff I owned was in that room,” he said. “A little furniture, electronics, my whole gaming rig and some sweet memorabilia. I had some of the coolest "Star Wars" stuff — my sister had just bought me the original release poster of Star Wars IV. All my Christmas presents were gone.”

He went back a week later to see the charred remains — only the basement walls and burned support beams.

One of his friends at work launched a GoFundMe for him, and his mom and sister gathered donations of bedding and clothes and signed him up for an Amazon gift registry.

“People wanted to help you so much. That was so cool how quickly the help came — it was mind-blowing,” he said.

They applied with the Federal Environmental Management Agency for disaster assistance and got some monetary help — but only one per household qualified so they had to split it.

“I’m still absolutely shell-shocked. I mean as a kid, you see tragedies like this on national television news, but you can never imagine it actually happening to you,” Cendali said.

"We are all so grateful for the help."

The Grachevs likely won’t be returning to Louisville, they fear, but will try to rebuild.

“We'll probably buy a new house somewhere in Denver metropolitan area during 2022,” Andrey Grachev wrote with a question mark. “In parallel, we will rebuild our house in Louisville, if, of course, we will have enough funds for that. We are currently working with State Farm agents on our claim.”

They bought the home in 2003 for $290,000, Boulder County assessor records show. The real estate website Trulia shows a house on that same street, albeit slightly bigger, to be worth $1 million.

“We must say that our friends, people we just know, colleagues, and even strangers helped us a lot,” Grachev said. “We are all so grateful for the help from the Marshall Fire Disaster Assistance Center (in Lafayette), the American Red Cross and other organizations.”

The Shelnutts are aiming to reopen the Smoke Shack by next January but don’t want to rush to reopen to ensure everyone’s safety.

Andrey Grachev, falling back on his experience as an atmospheric research scientist, believes climate change is the only thing that can explain the horribly destructive fire in the middle of winter.

“My research has focused on the turbulent transport in the atmospheric boundary layers over land/sea/ice,” he said.

“Understanding and proper parameterization of the atmospheric processes near the surface is of obvious relevance for climate modelling, weather forecasting and environmental impact studies. The Marshall fire in Boulder County on Dec. 30, 2021 was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado's history, possibly caused by climate change. It is frightening how quickly the effects of climate change hit us and a wildfire in winter is certainly one of them.”

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