From Laura Schmonsees’ yard in Marshall, she watched as a handful of Twelve Tribes’ members removed debris from an old mobile home destroyed in the Marshall Fire. It was a cold and snowy January 21, and the air smelled heavily of smoke and char.
Schmonsees texted her neighbors, who were already calling the police to report the activity. Dust rose into the air as an excavator rooted around in the ash and rubble, scooping heaps of waste into a CWS Excavating truck—an excavation company listed under the same address as Twelve Tribes.
“I think that’s illegal,” Schmonsees says, watching the cloud of particulates rising up from the work-site. The structure had been an old mobile-home trailer, she explains; one that, like so many other homes in the neighborhood of Marshall, could have contained a lot of carcinogenic materials.
“If that has asbestos, it needs to be put in a lined dumpster and disposed of properly,” she says. Schmonsees acknowledges that Boulder gave residents the right to opt out of the County’s 3-Phase debris removal program. “Technically, though,” she says, “it’s still supposed to be done right.”
Schmonsees lives under the Twelve Tribes property on Marshall Road just across from Goodhue ditch. Her home is one of few that survived on that street. Craters are left where her neighbors’ homes used to sit, littered with scorched vehicles, fallen mailboxes and lonely ovens.
Living among that destruction, Twelve Tribes’ hasty disposal of their burn debris is just one of Schmonsees concerns. The other big issue on her mind has to do with the rest of the razed neighborhood, how long it’s going to take the County to get around to cleaning it up and what happens when it starts raining in April and May. Marshall sits in a basin below the mesa, Schmonsees points out. And if all that debris isn’t cleaned up properly before springtime, any toxins or carcinogens it contains will be washed into Goodhue ditch and downstream into East Boulder County.
“Every spring it floods up there,” Schmonsees says, pointing south along Marshall Road, where rows of decaying mining shacks once stood. The shacks are gone now, exposing the rusty bed frames, decaying paint cans and toppled chemical drums they’d once concealed. “How does Boulder County not prioritize this? This is in a drainage.”
Walking down Marshall Road, Schmonsees indicates piles of ash and rubble that used to be homes, garages and storage sheds.
“This had asbestos, that one, all those over there along the ditch. All asbestos,” she says pointing to one burned building after the next. “This was built in the 1950s. That one was built in the 1800s. There you can actually see the asbestos tiles.”
She shrugs at the destruction: “Most of these were the old mining cabins.”
Joseph Marshall, the town’s namesake, was the founder of the Consolidated Coal Company which operated in Marshall. If you visited the area even just six weeks ago, much of that history was on display in the rusty mining-relics that punctuated the neighborhood. Coal mining stopped in Boulder in 1939, and unincorporated Marshall became more like other Boulder neighborhoods—mostly quiet, quaint, charming and uneventful.
Until an unusually dry and windy December 30, 2021. At which point Marshall became ground zero for the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history: 1,084 homes were lost in less than 24 hours between Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County.
In the wake of that disaster Boulder County scrambled to assemble its 3-Phase “Debris Removal Program,” launching Phase 1 as fast as it could.
“The very first thing we did in Phase 1 was food cleanup,” says Andrew Barth, the County Public Works Department’s public spokesman. “We got in there with dumpsters right away because of all the power outages to get rid of as much spoiled food as we could.”
Phase 1 of the cleanup also included dumpsters for water damaged home items, Barth says.
Phase 2 of the program launched on January 14 and has three components: 2A) “right of way” debris removal to clear streets, sidewalks, ditches and trails; 2B) the application of hydromulch to destroyed properties to stop wind and water from disturbing it—starting early in February according to Barth; and 2C) the curbside sweep of smoke and wind-damaged household items like fencing, patio furniture and downed vegetation.
To execute Phase 2, the County broke the fire-affected parts of Boulder County up into nine smaller zones and prioritized them in the following order: 1) Mobile Home Park (a large swath of land that stretches from Tantra Park in South Boulder, south past Eldorado Canyon), 2) North Louisville, 3) Mulberry, 4) Harper Lake/Enclave, 5) Coal Creek, 6) Davidson Mesa, 7) Rock Creek, 8) Sagamore, 9) Marshall.
Marshall’s place last on the list makes Schmonsees and other residents uneasy. Not because they’re impatient to see the neighborhood cleaned up, but because she doesn’t want any scorched car batteries, mercury light bulbs, lead-based paint, plastic items or other potentially toxic burn waste from entering the waterways via Goodhue ditch.
“They’ve basically lumped tiny little Marshall, where homes sit right in the drainage, in with the rest of unincorporated Boulder County,” she says. “And if we’re last, I’m not sure it’s going to get cleaned up before the rains [in spring].”
However, Barth says the high-priority zones will be different in the final Phase 3: debris removal and mitigation on private properties—or Private Property Debris Removal (PPDR).
“We haven’t prioritized anything for the destroyed homes as far as the [PPDR]. That has yet to be determined,” Barth says. “We will really reevaluate the map, redistribute our zones and refocus our priorities.”
Barth says that the right of way clean-up prioritized places like Superior and Louisville because they needed those roadways, sidewalks, ditches and trails clear in order to make way for Phase 3 PPDR in those neighborhoods.
“There’s not a whole lot of right of way to be cleared in Marshall,” Barth points out.
The two biggest priorities going into Phase 3 PPDR will be housing density and proximity to waterways, Barth explains. Neighborhoods like Davidson Mesa and Sagamore that were completely leveled, where there is a high concentration of ash and debris; and neighborhoods like Marshall that sit directly near a ditch or waterway will be high priority.
“There is a good chance that the Marshall folks will be [high] up there on the list for the [PPDR],” Barth says. “I would hope that if [destroyed] homes are in close proximity to waterways, that those are taken care of first.”
Currently, the County is still examining bids to choose a contractor it will move forward with for Phase 3. Residents who choose to opt in for the PPDR need to fill out a “Right of Entry” (ROE) form that can be found on Boulder County’s website. Not only will the County handle hydromulching the property and eventual debris removal, it will also test soils and foundations for asbestos, and recycle any eligible materials.
Residents who opt out of the County’s Phase 3 PPDR program have a lot of work, expenses and liability to handle on their own. There is a litany of state, local and federal environmental regulations surrounding the handling, transportation and disposal of structure-fire ash. And concerning asbestos-containing materials, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has detailed requirements for proper identification, handling and disposal.
Opting out of the County’s PPDR to do your own debris removal also requires permitting from the County’s Permitting and Planning Department. Ron Flax, the Deputy Director of Community Planning and Permitting says that the department has been stalled in a “holding pattern” organizing the logistics of this massive endeavor. Flax says the County has yet to issue a single permit for that kind of demolition, deconstruction or debris removal yet.
So Flax was notably surprised to hear about CWS Excavation’s extraction operation Marshall residents called the police to report on January 21. They would have needed a permit for that, according to Flax.
He acknowledges that Twelve Tribes notified his department they were going to mulch some organic debris and recycle some metal scraps. But when the extent of their operation was described to him, there was a long pause on the other end of the call.
“Huh,” Flax said, finally.
Boulder Weekly was unable to reach Twelve Tribes for comment; however, an individual from CWS Excavating, who declined to be quoted, contends they notified the County appropriately—though they also confirmed they received no permits for debris removal.
To Barth that illustrates the County’s reason for encouraging residents to opt in to the PPDR and to have patience.
“That’s why we want to manage all of [the debris removal], because we’ll be able to make sure that at every site it’s done correctly,” Barth says. “If you opt in, then we’ll get in there and we’ll have all the equipment, all sorts of air quality and land monitors watching to make sure this is done safely and correctly and everything is disposed of properly.”
The County is here to help, he says. “It’s just going to take some time to clean up.”
Residents like Schmonsees are content enough to wait for it to be done right—while others, like Twelve Tribes, don’t seem to have the patience.