Natural Disasters in Colorado: What Are the Risks?

Over 5.8 million people live in Colorado. Many of these people have experienced natural disasters in the state firsthand. However, many don’t realize just how many different natural disasters can occur in the state or how the risk for some disasters is increasing.

Here we will go over what natural disasters occur in Colorado, the worst natural disasters to hit the state since 2000, and what can be done to prepare.

Is Colorado At Risk of Natural Disasters?

Compared to the rest of the country, Colorado has a medium risk of natural disasters. There have been 77 disaster declarations in Colorado since 2000. Of these, 10 were Major Disaster Declarations.

There were 53 disaster events affecting Colorado, which caused more than $1 billion in damages.

Since 2000 in Colorado, there have been:

  • 77 disaster declarations
  • 10 Major Disaster Declarations
  • 53 events that caused $1 billion or more in damages

Worst Natural Disasters in Colorado Since 2000

Since 2000, Colorado has been affected by numerous major natural disasters, which caused billions in damages. Below are the worst ones. Note that the cost and death tolls are for the entire disaster, including in other states affected.

  1. 2012 Drought and Heat Wave: $38.7 billion and 123 deaths
  2. 2018 Western Wildfires: $27.8 billion and 106 deaths
  3. 2021 Winter Storm and Cold Wave: $25.2 billion and 262 deaths
  4. 2020 Western Wildfires: $18.4 billion and 46 deaths
  5. 2002 US Drought: $14.9 billion and no deaths

What Natural Disasters Occur in Colorado?

1. Wildfires

The most common major natural disaster in Colorado is wildfires. Since 2000, the state has declared an emergency because of wildfires 68 times. 

In addition to these major wildfires, Colorado also regularly has smaller wildfires. On average, Colorado has over 5,600 wildfires per year! These wildfires burn an average of over 237,000 acres yearly.   

Because of climate change and increased drought, the number of wildfires per year in Colorado is only expected to increase. The amount of damage done by wildfires each year is also growing. 

One report found that approximately 1 million properties in Colorado, about 40% of all properties in the state, will be at risk of wildfire by 2052. Homes in El Paso, Douglas, and La Plata are at the most risk.

Worst Wildfires in Colorado Since 2000

  1. Cameron Peak (2020): 208,913 acres burned
  2. East Troublesome (2020): 193,812 acres burned
  3. Pine Gulch (2020): 139,007 acres burned
  4. Hayman (2002): 137,760 acres burned
  5. West Fork Fire Complex (2013): 110,405 acres burned
  6. Spring Creek (2018): 108,045 acres burned

Evacuate orders are often issued during large wildfires in Colorado, meaning residents must flee their homes in a hurry. All Coloradans should make sure they have a Go Bag packed, know their evacuation plan and ideally keep essential documents and valuables in a fireproof safe.

2. Floods

Flooding is the most common natural disaster in Colorado. An estimated 131,300 properties in Colorado are at substantial risk of flooding. Since 2000, nearly 50,000 home and property owners have made flood damage claims through FEMA. Despite drought conditions in Colorado, the risk of flooding is expected to worsen.

Cities with the Highest Risk of Flooding in Colorado

  1. Lamar
  2. Craig
  3. Vail
  4. Florence
  5. Wellington
  6. Manitou Springs
  7. Breckenridge
  8. Fort Morgan
  9. Fort Lupton
  10. Estes Park

In addition to widespread waterway flooding, Colorado is at particularly high risk for flash flooding. This is because the soil is often very dry or burnt from wildfires. When rainwater hits the dry ground, it can’t be absorbed fast enough, and flash flooding occurs. Mudslides are also common.

For example, two people died in Colorado in July 2022 when flash floods swept away their camping trailer. News reports like this one are not uncommon in the state.

Also Read: How to prepare for a flood

colorado flood events since 1996
Map shows flood events in Colorado since 1996

3. Tornadoes

Colorado is located right along “tornado alley” and typically will have 50 tornadoes per year. However, most of these tornadoes are weak and don’t travel far. This doesn’t mean severe tornadoes can’t occur in Colorado, though.

In 2008, for example, the state had to declare a disaster when the Windsor tornado hit Weld County. The tornado was up to 1 mile wide at times and caused EF3 damage. One person died, 78 people were injured, 850 homes were damaged, and there was approximately $1 million in damage to infrastructure. Many were left without power due to the tornado as well.

Approximately 95% of all tornadoes in Colorado occur east of Interstate 25. Some tornadoes have made it to other parts of the state though, including East Denver.

4. Severe Storms

In addition to tornadoes, Colorado can have other severe storms. The state is particularly a hotspot for hail storms. Colorado has nearly 5,000 hail storms per year, with the worst of them occurring in June. 

The Front Range region of Colorado is in the heart of “hail alley” – an area with the highest frequency of large hail in the country. In 2019, Colorado set a new state record for the largest hailstone. It was nearly 5 inches long and weighed 8.5 ounces!

These hail storms can inflict massive amounts of damage. The costliest hail storm was one that hit the Denver area in 2017. The hail balls started the size of dimes and grew as large as baseballs. These massive hail balls shredded siding on homes, shattered windows, and damaged roofs. By the time the storm was over, it had caused more than $2 billion in damages.

5. Winter Storms and Freeze Events

Colorado is known for cold winters with lots of snow and ice. Residents are generally prepared for these winters, though. A study even found that Coloradans are the safest drivers for driving in poor weather.

Despite this, Colorado has had to declare emergency three times because of winter snowstorms: once in 2003 and twice in the winter of 2006/2007.

The 2003 snowstorm dropped nearly 2 feet of snow in Boulder and 87 inches in some mountain areas. High winds created massive snowdrifts, causing roads to be closed. Hundreds of structures were damaged, and 135 thousand people were left without power. The snow was so heavy that the airport roof collapsed. There was $93 million in damages from this storm.

The 2006 snowstorms occurred right around Christmas. Many passengers were stranded at the Denver airport. Roadways were closed or blocked, prompting many people to abandon their vehicles on the roads, creating an even bigger problem. There were runs on grocery stores and hardware stores. The storm also affected ranchers, with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 cattle dying.

Because winter storm and freeze events are so common in Colorado, residents must be ready to hunker down. 

Also Read:

6. Avalanche

Many parts of Colorado are at considerable risk of avalanches. Each year, avalanches kill more people than any other natural hazard. The state accounts for 1/4 to 1/3 of all avalanche deaths in the United States. 

Most avalanche deaths in Colorado occur when people hike, ski, or do other outdoor sports. However, avalanches can occasionally fall onto roadways or even homes built in risky areas.

7. Drought

Throughout its history, Colorado has experienced numerous dry periods. However, drought has been particularly bad in Colorado over the past several years.

In 2022, the drought was so bad that all 64 Colorado counties qualified as natural disaster areas. Studies show that the American West is the driest it’s been in 1,200 years.

Drought in Colorado primarily affects farmers and ranchers. Agriculture accounts for $47 billion of the state’s economy and 200,000 jobs. With drought worsening in Colorado, the economic toll could be massive over the following decades.

Many areas of Colorado have watering restrictions due to the drought conditions. 

Most counties only encourage residents to conserve water indoors. However, some areas – such as Evergreen Metropolitan District – require indoor water rationing during Level 3 droughts. When enacted, residents are only allowed to use 6,000 gallons per month or pay a penalty for every 10,000 gallons above that amount.

8. Heat Waves

Historically, heat waves were rare in Colorado because of its low humidity and cool nighttime temperatures. However, Colorado has seen record-breaking high temperatures in recent years. High temperatures in 2021 and 2022 caused 11 heat-related deaths, and hospitalized dozens.

While the heat wave risk in Colorado is still low, this could change in the next few decades. The Eastern Plains and Grand Junction areas are particularly at risk for heat wave disasters.

Residents should have a plan for staying cool if a significant heat wave breaks out, especially if power outages or water restrictions accompany this heat wave.  

Read: Steps You Can Take to Prepare for Heat Waves

heat wave risk

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