Veterinarian loses home, finds solace after Colorado fire

Colleagues, clients and friends lend support in wake of catastrophic blaze

January 7, 2022 (published)
Photo courtesy of Dr. Shelle Raines
Dr. Shelle Raines with her husband Bryant Culler and son Liam in happier times. On Dec. 30, their home was one of more than 900 that burned down in Colorado's most destructive wildfire.

At the Erie, Colorado, veterinary hospital where Dr. Shelle Raines was working on Dec. 30, no one — neither staff nor clients — seemed concerned about smoke pluming in the distance. Brush fires often flare on the plains abutting the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains; they are usually quickly doused before causing much damage. Raines' first hint that this situation could be something different was an afternoon email from authorities directing the evacuation of residents of nearby Superior, where she has lived since 2004.

Within the hour, she was driving the 15-minute route home, the air now permeated with smoke. By the time she reached Superior, population about 13,000, emergency personnel weren't letting anyone in. "It was insane how quick it happened," she said. She drove to Louisville, the next town over, hoping to find a back route to her home, "just in time to see fire jump across the road and start burning houses."

Slowly, in a long line of evacuating cars, Raines made her way back to the hospital, where she went ahead with two more appointments, unaware that the fire she'd glimpsed was devouring suburban neighborhoods, including her own, at breakneck speed.

Unseasonably warm, dry conditions and 100 mph wind gusts would make the so-called Marshall Fire the most destructive wild blaze in the state's history. It wiped out nearly 1,000 structures, mostly homes, in fewer than 24 hours. Two people are unaccounted for and presumed dead.

Raines finished her workday unaware that her life was about to turn upside down until she received a call from her husband, Bryant Culler. He asked if she was sitting. "Then," she said, "he told me that our house was one of the ones that was gone."

The news didn't sink in instantly. "He was trying to be upbeat, so it took me a second to realize he wasn't joking," Raines recounted in an interview. "Then the waterworks started. I cried for a few minutes. Then I started to feel sick thinking about everything left behind at the house.”

A neighbor watching the disaster unfold through binoculars from a hilltop outside the evacuation zone had seen their street, Andrew Drive, go up in flames. Later, Raines and her husband confirmed through aerial photos that their house was gone.

Like Raines, Culler had not anticipated the fire's speed and approach. Working at home that day, he monitored its progress and judged that it wasn't heading toward their direction.

In brief

"The cops literally had to come knock on our door and tell him to get out," Raines said. Assuming they'd be able to return home soon, he left with their 10-year-old son, Liam, their geriatric poodle, Addie, and not much more than the clothes he was wearing.

"They got out as the fire was jumping onto our street," she said. "It was a pretty narrow escape."

Liam was not empty-handed. "He was the smartest one," his mom said. "He got out with his phone and his computer and his Oculus game. He packed an overnight bag. He even grabbed a bag of dog food. Thank God for him, or we would have had absolutely nothing."

The boy has also been an emotional rock. "He's just been a trooper, honestly. He keeps me from spiraling," she said. "I just look at him and think, 'The kid was there. He saw the flames coming, and he's calm about this, so maybe I should get myself together.' "

For the time being, the family is staying at the home of a friend in Boulder, a short drive northwest of Superior.

Kate Wessels, director of communications for the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, said the organization does not know of any other veterinarians who lost homes or of any animal hospitals destroyed in the fire.

A Banfield Pet Hospital located in a PetSmart in Superior sustained some damage and has been closed since the fire. Banfield spokesperson Liz Morales said by email that the company is assessing the damage. She did not specify whether the condition was caused by fire, smoke or a combination.

Community support

Photo by Bryant Culler
Dr. Shelle Raines' husband, Bryant Culler, visited their property one week after the Marshall Fire to find everything in ruins.

Soon after veterinary colleagues, clients and others learned about Raines' loss, they began pitching in. Dr. Sue Patton, who owns North Boulder Companion Animal Hospital, where Raines works one day a week, created a GoFundMe campaign for the family on Jan. 1. It has raised more than $31,000 to date. A second GoFundMe campaign was set up on Jan. 2 by the owner of the Erie clinic, where Raines was working on the day of the fire. It has brought in more than $13,000. The two hospitals and others are also accepting donations of household goods and clothing on Raines' behalf.

"We are helpers," Patton said, speaking of veterinarians. "This time, she is the one who needs help."

And it's well-deserved, added Patton, who has known Raines for years. "She is a warm, meticulous veterinarian, funny and always willing to do extra things for her team and clients."

For her part, Raines said she's a bit overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness. "There is this upside: There are people who care about you and love you," she said. "That's a huge thing."

For the short term, the Raines will be able to stay in their friends' Boulder home until they can find a long-term rental while they rebuild. They have no doubts about returning — they love the people there. Raines recounted how kids used to play street hockey in front of the house. A neighbor who coached the kids had Andrew Drive Hockey Club pucks made for the players. "It was sitting in our window," Raines said. "If the neighbors return, we'll want to be there, too."

Back to work

On Monday, four days after the fire, Raines was back at work — on her regular schedule — in North Boulder.

"It was nice to be among friends and to have something to distract my brain," she said, adding that she did her best not to cry every time someone brought in a donation. "It's so touching — the outpouring of love that we are getting," she said. "I'm so thankful and appreciative.' "

Raines has not seen any clients or animal patients who were directly affected by the fire. She said that it's probably because the two practices where she works are outside the fire zone.

However, she knows some pets took the brunt of the fire's speedy rampage — and she knows one friend who snuck back into an evacuation zone in order to retrieve pets trapped at home. News reports, social media and the Boulder humane society website are filled with reports of lost cats and dogs that were reluctantly left behind or are missing after emergency responders, neighbors or others opened doors and windows in the hopes animals would find their way to safety. 

The Washington Post reported one frightening case with a silver lining. As fire beelined for a dog boarding facility in Superior, the owner loaded in his car as many of the 40 canine residents as possible for evacuation and then released the others so they wouldn't be trapped. Through luck and the help of volunteers, all were eventually located. 

Snow started falling the morning after the fire. By Saturday, nearly 10 inches blanketed the area, snuffing remaining pockets of fire, although, Raines said, you could see steam rising from snow piles on Monday.

Although she's seen some of the burned areas, she hasn't returned to her own neighborhood yet. "People took pictures of the black hole, as we call it, so we know there's not anything left," Raines said. She wants to go back soon, saying it will probably take seeing the ashen heap in person for the truth to sink in.

Ever the animal lover, she's been concerned about a few animals left behind, including five goldfish that lived in her backyard pond. She learned from her husband, who visited the property on Thursday, that they'd frozen to death after the power went out, cutting off heat to the pond. She hangs onto hope for a momma squirrel with babies that she'd been feeding. "I hope they made it out," she said.

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