Compared to coastal states that are the most vulnerable to major disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, landlocked Colorado doesn’t top the list for disaster-prone states. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t experienced its fair share of devastating natural and manmade events over the years.
In fact, everything from biblical locust swarms to freak weather events to human-caused fires have plagued Colorado spanning back from when it was an American territory to recent history. If you’ve ever been bored with living in the Centennial State, learning about these disasters will show you just how lucky you are.
Here are among the worst natural disasters in Colorado, in no particular order:
Pueblo’s Great Flood of 1921
Aside from a select few of Pueblo’s eldest residents, the Great Flood of 1921 is now a mostly forgotten natural event from the southern Colorado city’s past. But for those who survived the tragedy, life was never the same.
Torrential rains swelled the Arkansas River––which flows through the heart of downtown Pueblo–– beyond recognition to a mile wide and 15 ft deep in some places. Many buildings were destroyed, and reports describe an apocalyptic aftermath of countless dead animals and toppled houses littering the streets, all covered in a thick layer of mud.
Estimates of the death toll vary, but some believe it to be in the hundreds, and the remains of the flood’s victims later washed up in the Arkansas River for several years following the flood. While the Great Flood took many lives, countless others were spared due to the selfless acts of Pueblo’s citizens, including telephone operators who stayed on the job to send out warnings as floodwaters reached over nine feet.
You probably haven’t heard of Albert’s Swarm, but, according to some, it’s estimated to be the greatest collection of animals ever recorded. Given the seemingly harmless name of the “grasshopper year,” Albert’s Swarm was an unbelievably massive and utterly destructive swarm of grasshoppers that descended on the central and western US in 1875 shortly before Colorado became a bonafide US state.
Estimates of the number of locusts in the swarm range from 3.5 to 12.5 trillion. Albert Child, who had the strange honor of being the horrendous swarm’s namesake, estimated its size to be 198,000 square miles. Farmers in Colorado’s eastern plains and across large swaths of the country reported surreal scenes of darkened mid-day skies and vast fields picked clean by the swarm.
Colorado is probably the last place most people think about when it comes to earthquakes, but the southern part of the state experienced quite a significant one in the summer of 2011. Outside of the city of Trinidad, a 5.3 quake shook Colorado, and it was the strongest naturally occurring event the state had recorded in over a century. The event was strong enough to be felt as far away as Greeley, which is located 350 miles to the north and even Kansas.
Colorado experienced multiple quakes of comparable size during the 60’s and 70’s, but those were determined to be caused by human activity like drilling or explosives. While Colorado’s 2011 earthquake was a biggie, it wasn’t nearly as large as the 6.5 magnitude event that struck the area now known as Rocky Mountain National Park in 1882.
With much of the state located more than 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean, hurricanes aren’t typically natural disasters that Coloradans have to worry about. But Hurricane Lester is still remembered for bringing weird weather to Colorado and other western states during late August of 1992.
Reaching a peak intensity of Category 1, Lester wasn’t a notably strong Pacific hurricane, but it still caused millions of dollars of damage, left 5,000 people homeless, and took three lives in Mexico. Lester is remembered as a bizarre Colorado natural disaster because it dropped as much as four inches of snow at the peak of summer in parts of the state and temporarily wreaked havoc on mountain roads.
The Hayman Fire is among the most impactful disasters in Colorado history. This fire was caused by a single person, but extreme dry conditions allowed it to spread rapidly and widely. At a stunning size of over 138,114 acres, 2002’s Hayman Fire is the largest wildfire in Colorado history by a massive margin.
The fire, which burned a vast forested area outside of Denver and Colorado Springs, took the lives of five firefighters and one civilian, and consumed 133 homes and 466 other structures. The financial impact of the Hayman Fire is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, and includes everything from suppression costs to private property loss. Rampant flooding became a problem in the area after the fire, and many roads and bridges were washed away long after the area burned.
Human activity caused the Hayman Fire, but the exact cause is still unknown. Locals believe that the fire was set intentionally by U.S. Forest Service forestry technician Terry Barton at the time of a local burn ban. Barton claimed the fire was set accidentally while she was burning a letter from her estranged husband at the behest of her therapist. She later pleaded guilty to setting fire to federal forest land and lying to investigators and was sentenced six years in federal prison. As of 2018, Barton was still making payments towards the $14.5 million she owes in restitution.
You can view the burn scars from the Hayman Fire on the mountainsides south of Deckers. Take Highway 67 between Denver and Colorado Springs, a back way between the cities, and evidence of the horrific wildfire is scattered along the hillsides. The highway starts from Sedalia and goes south to Woodland Park, meeting up with Highway 24.
2014 West Salt Creek Landslide
You might not have heard about the West Salt Creek Landslide, but it was the largest landslide in Colorado history and was so powerful that it caused its own earthquake. In late May of 2014 east of Grand Junction, heavy unseasonable rains caused a massive chunk of the West Salt Creek valley headwall to collapse. The ensuing avalanche of rock and debris was estimated to reach speeds of up to 140 miles-per-hour, and smaller collapses later followed.
The reason many Coloradans haven’t heard of this massive natural disaster is the same reason it didn’t take lives and damage countless homes and businesses: it occurred on private property that was mostly used for cattle ranching. Access to the media was limited after the event.
The Great Denver Blizzard of 1913
In 2020, six inches of snow is enough to inspire frustration or even panic in a city brimming with transplants like Denver. But in 1913, a remarkable 45.7 inches of heavy, wet snow accumulated on Colorado’s capitol between December 1st-5th in what was, without a doubt, the largest snowstorm in Denver history. But with the mountain town of Georgetown receiving an astounding 86 inches of snow, Denver wasn’t the only spot in Colorado to see once-in-a-century snow totals.
In a 2019 article profiling famous Denver snowstorms, the Denver Post reported that the weather event produced an astounding 11 times the average amount of liquid that Denver typically receives during any month of the year. Before the storm, a lack of moisture had concerned Coloradans, and weather forecasting wasn’t sophisticated enough to alert the state that their water worries would soon be over.
The snow was so heavy that it collapsed roofs in the city, and swallowed cars, trains, and carriages. “The only means of transportation was a sturdy pair of legs,” remarked a Denver Post reporter. By all accounts, Colorado farmers had a stellar crop in 1914 because of the excess of water after the snowmelt, and the uncanny weather event is credited today for bringing recreational skiing to Colorado.
2018-2019 Avalanche Season
It’s not something most people think about when they travel to the state’s ski resorts every winter, but Colorado is America’s most dangerous state for avalanches, says the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. And, according to the Denver Post, it’s not even close when it comes to deaths caused by avalanches.
During the 2018-2019 winter season, the state saw 4,273 events that snared 135 people and killed eight. Colorado’s avalanche fatalities were twice the amount of comparable states that season. Since 1950, avalanche fatalities in the state have far exceeded any other, with Alaska’s 158 deaths coming in at a far second to Colorado’s 287.
Big Thompson Flood
A confluence of tragic factors made the Big Thompson Flood of 1976 the most deadly natural disaster in modern Colorado history. On July 31st, 1976, an average year’s worth of rain fell in just over an hour in Big Thompson Canyon, where an estimated 3,500 people were gathered to celebrate Colorado’s Centennial weekend. By the time it was over, 144 lives were lost and $35 million in damages were reported. Five bodies were never recovered.
Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Willis Hugh Purdy is credited for giving his life to issue evacuation warnings before being washed away by the floodwaters, which were powerful enough to move a 275-ton house-sized boulder. Babies were reportedly swept away as families frantically tried to climb the canyon walls to escape the deluge. Bodies and debris were strewn from the canyon out to 1-25, over 23 miles to the east. The horrific event forced Colorado officials to redraw flood plane maps and post signs urging motorists to climb to safety in the event of a flood.
That’s a roundup of some of the most devastating natural and manmade disasters in Colorado’s relatively short history as a state. Learn what you can from these shocking moments, as history tends to repeat itself.