Colorado History

The Ten Biggest Colorado Disasters, Natural or Not

On August 5, 2015, three million gallons of toxic mine mustard were released into the headwaters of Colorado’s Animas River, wreaking havoc on the natural ecosystem from Silverton down to Durango and beyond.

The cleanup — both physical and political — is still ongoing, and the aftermath of that year-old mess got us thinking about other disasters, both man-made and act-of-God, that left their marks on Colorado.

Here are ten of the biggest disasters that scarred this state.

10. The 1965 Denver Flood
This state has suffered much abuse from floods over the years. One of the most disastrous resulted from the storm that started on June 14, 1965, swelling the South Platte River and swamping much of downtown and the Auraria, Valverde and Athmar Park neighborhoods. (As result, Auraria was revisioned as the university campus that sits on the edge of downtown today.) Bridges all over the city gave way, roads and houses were washed away, and the flood claimed an estimated 21 lives. Cleanup of the disaster cost the state approximately $4 billion in today's dollars, leaving a city that was utterly and irrecoverably changed.

9. Hayman Fire
One of the few preventable disasters on this list, the June 8, 2002, Hayman Fire was not only immensely destructive, but also deeply weird in terms of origin. Terry Barton, an employee of the U.S. Forest Service, admitted to setting the fire, though the reasons remain in dispute. (Explanations ranged from burning a letter from her ex — Barton’s story — to purposefully starting the blaze in order to either be a hero or get to fight a fire here in Colorado where she could be with her kids, rather than being assigned to other fires in the American West. None of these, it must be noted, make a lick of sense.) The Hayman Fire burned nearly 140,000 acres, destroyed 133 homes, displaced over 5,000 residents, killed six people (including five firefighters) and cost over $40 million to combat. Not only that, but it added to Colorado lore with Governor Bill Owens’s killer sound bite: “All of Colorado is burning tonight.” Great for tourism, gov.

8. 1990 Hailstorm
When the hail that comes down from the heavens is compared to baseballs, you know insurance companies across the country will take notice. New roofs for everyone! Brand-new dinged-up cars on big clearance savings! Oh, and kiss your gardens and your paint jobs and your glass-top deck tables goodbye. And woe be to you if you were one of the 47 folks stuck on rides at Elitch’s (then still up on the Northside) who were injured in the sudden pelting on July 11, 1990. Ouch.

7. Windsor Tornado
On May 22, 2008, one of Colorado’s most destructive tornadoes struck the small town of Windsor, which sits in both Weld and Larimer counties, killing one person. The town, which at the last census numbered a little over 18,000 residents, was declared both a local and national disaster area; it sustained nearly $125 million in damages. Some of the damage has yet to be repaired, and Colorado as a whole was reminded that, yes, we might be on the edge of Tornado Alley, but we’re still in the line of fire.

6. 2013 Front Range Floods
From September 9 through September 12,  2013, drought conditions combined with a sudden and prolonged series of storms to create one of the most significant flooding situations the state has ever seen. All along the Front Range, from Fort Collins down to Colorado Springs, flooding was spotty but serious. Boulder County got more rain in five days than its average annual precipitation, and the landscape up to Estes Park was completely and irreversibly changed. The flooding and its associated damage was so widespread that a full accounting has yet to be determined, and we continue to live with the aftermath of the floods today.

Keep reading for five more disasters.