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.

5. Black Sunday
The American Dust Bowl lasted so long and was so widespread that it gave a name to an entire decade: the Dirty Thirties. April 14, 1935, marked what was arguably the apex of that disaster, when over 300 million tons of topsoil were displaced by an enormous windstorm that stretched from Oklahoma into Colorado's eastern plains, burying homes, cars and people unlucky enough to be out in the storm. Even the skies over Denver turned dark.

4. Blizzard of 1913
Denver has had a number of big snows; folks who lived here at the time will still regale you with tales about the Christmas blizzard of 1982, which came on the heels of another record snowfall just a month before. But those were only twenty-something inches; in the first week of December 1913, they could have more easily measured the snow in feet, as nearly 46 inches fell on a city that was still using horses and wagons to clear the roads. Citizens muddled through, piling wagon-loads of snow into what would later become Civic Center Park, stoking their coal hearths, and adjusting their hats with a “Harrumph.”

3. Avalanches
There have been several instances of terrible avalanches taking the lives of Coloradans and Colorado visitors alike — most recently on April 20, 2013, when an avalanche near the Loveland Ski Area (but outside the boundaries) claimed five. But the record is more stark when avalanches overall are compared to national numbers. In the latter half of the last century, specifically 1950 to 1997, there were 514 deaths attributed to avalanche dangers, and over a third of those incidents occurred in Colorado. That gives Colorado the dubious distinction of leading the nation in avalanche deaths — almost double the rate of Alaska, which ranks second. Makes you want to reconsider the name of the hockey team.

2. Big Thompson Flood
The Bicentennial year of 1976 saw one of the legendary floods of Colorado, which killed 144 people and cost the state $35 million in 1977 dollars (about $140 million today). In terms of actual water, the Big Thompson Flood — so named for the canyon through which it rampaged — carried less volume than the 2013 floods, but the rainfall on July 31, 1976, was the heaviest on record. The rain came so hard and fast — and caught so many Coloradans by surprise — that the death toll was far higher than it might have been had the floodwaters risen more slowly.

1. Douglas Bruce
Okay, so Douglas Bruce, with his support of the 1992 Taxpayer's Bill of Rights amendment to the Colorado Constitution and his criminal indictment and his probation violations and his propensity to kick members of the press, might not be properly termed “natural.” But in terms of his effect on the State of Colorado? Definitely a disaster.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen