Colorado’s vast landscapes, mountains, trails, rivers, natural hot springs, and lakes are internationally renowned, especially among outdoorsy people. The images I saw in magazines as a teen are what lured me to take a road trip to the Centennial State years later. As a nature lover, I needed to see those sights for myself. I have to say... the trip did not disappoint!
I traveled there during the middle of the fall, around the time when the mountains were beginning to turn white, the air began to feel cool, and spending a day soaking in the natural hot springs was a must. It’s a sad reality we must face that many of the places we love are vulnerable to natural hazards. Colorado is no exception, but I can say that as the land recovers from disasters, it returns to its incredible natural beauty.
What natural disasters does Colorado have?
Colorado’s most common natural disasters include wildfires, floods, winter storms, severe storms, tornadoes, and droughts. Less significant disasters include landslides, power outages, and earthquakes. Between 1953 and 2019, Colorado declared 83 major disasters, of which wildfires and floods happened the most according to FEMA.
Colorado averages one thousand wildfires or more each year. Some say that wildfires in Colorado have gotten worse over the years, and this could be due to several factors, including manmade or natural causes and the wind speeds at the time while the fire is burning. A brush fire can be contained quickly if the wind weren’t a factor, but when winds are strong, it’s a race against Mother Nature to try to put it out and save the homes in the threatened area.
The largest wildfire in Colorado history, in terms of acreage, is the Hayman Fire that was started in June 2002. That fire burned over 138,000 acres, consumed 133 homes, and killed six people. Arson was determined to be what initiated the fire.
The most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, in terms of property damage, was the Waldo Canyon Fire that occurred on June 11, 2013. That fire destroyed 489 homes and caused 2 fatalities.
Since Colorado has such a high risk of wildfires, becoming prepared for them should become one of your priorities. Although there is no sure way to protect your home, there are mitigation strategies that you can implement. For instance, creating defensible space is known to help a lot, especially with fires that are not accompanied by strong winds. Creating defensible space simply means that you should remove any dead trees, brush, and plants from near your home or property altogether. These act as fuel for the fire so getting rid of them is incredibly helpful in deterring the spread of the flames. Another thing you can do is clean your gutters that oftentimes get clogged with dry leaves and pine needles. Clean your roof as well and trim any overhanging tree branches. There are fire-resistant materials that you can use on your home, but that can get pricey. It’s up to you to decide whether making such an investment is worth it. This comprehensive guide discusses more wildfire mitigation and home retrofitting tips, as well as what to do to stay safe!
Just like anywhere else in the United States, Colorado is prone to flooding. Some of the main contributors to floods and flash floods include heavy precipitation, monsoons, rapid snowmelt, soil saturation, overflowing rivers, and dam failure. Scientists are analyzing the cause of increased flooding throughout the state. One of the hypotheses rests on the idea that the warmer atmosphere is causing more downpours.
The deadliest flash flood in Colorado history occurred in July 1976 and claimed the lives of 144 people. One of the costliest floods occurred in September 2013, costing over $2 billion in damages.
When preparing for a flood, I recommend designing an action plan. During periods of heavy precipitation, a place can get flooded rather quickly. After episodes of downpours, flash flooding is also likely. More often than not, you will receive a notification from the National Weather Service alerting you of a threat — side note: if you don’t have weather notifications enabled, make sure to take a minute to do that. Anyway, back to the action plan. This plan should outline what steps you will tame as soon as a flood alert is sent to you. Will you secure your home and evacuate immediately? Who will pick up the kids from school? Who will take the pets? How will you get in touch with loved ones if phones aren’t working? All of these questions need to be addressed sooner than later, so that when an emergency strikes, you’re not in a panic, but rather are able to get to safety and reunite with loved ones promptly. In this guide, I highlight important tips for flood preparedness. Check it out!
3. Winter Storms
When I think of Colorado, two of the things that come first to mind are ski resorts and snow sports. Colorado averages 60” of snowfall each year, with some mountains receiving more than twice that amount! With the snow and winter season, you can expect storms such as blizzards, flurries, freezing fog, and rime ice. With large amounts of snow and mountainous topography, you should also become aware of avalanches— Colorado averages 2,500 avalanches a year.
One of the worst blizzards in Colorado’s recent history was titled the Holiday Blizzards because it began on December 20, 2006, and lasted several days. The blizzard literally shut down most of Denver and many other cities throughout the state, causing highway closures, store closures, and the Denver International Airport for more than 45 hours. It was considered a statewide disaster that resulted in four fatalities and thousands of cow deaths.
Blizzards, snowstorms, ice, and extremely cold temperatures pose many dangers to your life and your property. The fall season should be the time when you start thinking about winter preparedness and what you need to fix, update and upgrade when it comes to your emergency kits and home, vehicles, etc. For example, you should add winter supplies to your car in the event that you ever become stranded or get stuck in traffic during snowy weather. As for your home, you should keep the thermostat to at least 60 degrees F to prevent the water pipes from freezing overnight. It would also help to leave it running with a trickle of water throughout the night. In order to prevent hypothermia and other weather-related illnesses, be sure to wear the appropriate winter clothing and layer up, especially when going outdoors. In this guide, you can find many more tips for becoming ready for the winter season!
4. Severe Storms
Colorado is known for having severe thunderstorms that include heavy rainfall, lightning, strong winds, and hail.
Thunderstorms tend to occur in the spring and summer months, reaching their peak during June and July. Colorado experiences an average of 500,000 lightning strikes each year— yup, that’s half a million cloud-to-ground strikes! Since the Colorado population is so outdoorsy, this puts a lot of people at risk of becoming hit or injured. Lightning is one risk you’re bound to encounter, and another one is hail. Hail season begins around April 15th and lasts up until September 15th. In some parts of the state, June typically brings in the most destructive hail storms, however, in the southeastern part of the state, the worst might come in August. Monsoon season in Colorado begins in mid-July and lasts through September. Monsoons can become dangerous because they bring in heavy rains, thunderstorms, and sometimes hail. These storms travel, so they don’t tend to last too long in one place but they may catch you by surprise.
Knowing when a storm is dangerous is part of learning to prepare for it. Some storms may seem to appear out of nowhere. Perhaps you’re enjoying a nice day mountain biking and all of a sudden, a dark cloud begins to cover the sun and approach your direction. When you hear thunder, you can expect to see lightning. Lightning is a massive charge of electricity that burns extremely hot. It has the potential to travel outside the scope of the clouds so don’t undermine a storm that appears to be far away. In the presence of thunder, go down under! Just kidding, this isn’t a tornado warning— I just liked the way it rhymed. In all seriousness though, when you hear thunder roar, go indoors! As fascinating as it is to look at and photograph lightning, you put yourself at a huge risk of getting struck if you don’t take cover in a sturdy building, especially if you’re out in the open. Do not touch anything that can conduct electricity, such as metal or water. You should wait at least thirty minutes after the last flash of lightning or thunder roar before resuming your outdoor activities. Read more about thunderstorm preparedness here!
Colorado has approximately 47 to 53 tornadoes each year. Tornadoes can occur any time of year, but they’re seen more during the spring and summer months, particularly May, June, and July. This is when the atmospheric climate is favorable for these types of storms to form.
The boundaries of what is popularly known as “Tornado Alley” are not officially defined, but some maps include the eastern portion of Colorado and others don’t. When looking at the map of the cumulative tornado activity since the 1950s, you can see that tornadoes touch down in the eastern part the majority of the time. Take a look here! If you were to cut the state in half from top to bottom, you would see that Denver is located within the “eastern half” which means that you should expect some twisters to reach the capital city.
The Windsor Tornado that occurred on May 22, 2008, was one of the most devastating tornadoes to hit Colorado. This tornado was rated EF-3, reaching peak wind speeds of 165 mph and traveling over 26 miles. The tornado destroyed at least 850 homes, injured 78 people, killed one, and killed almost 400 cows from a dairy farm. The tornado also produced baseball-sized hail and lightning!
If you live in the eastern part of Colorado, I highly recommend that you prepare for twisters! Remember my “in the presence of thunder, go down under” rhyme? Ok, remember the latter part for tornadoes! Thunder itself does not mean a tornado is going to occur but that possibility is not completely out of the question. In times of low atmospheric pressure, tornadoes can form and increase in speed and strength rapidly. Knowing the signs of a coming tornado, as well as the sounds they produce, is key in getting to safety quickly. If you receive a tornado warning, that’s also your cue to find shelter immediately. Some of the best places include storm-proof shelters and basements, but if neither of those is an option, you can go to an interior room of the building you find yourself in. Wait for the radio or local weather report to give the all-clear before coming out of your place of shelter. Learn more tornado tips here!
Over the last few years, Colorado has been experiencing long periods of heat, causing abnormally dry conditions throughout the state. Many people argue that this is the result of climate change, and while I’m not going to dive into that topic, I will say that people (in general, not just in Colorado) have become used to the abundance of things—water included! With that in mind, using more water than the state has at a given time is going to encourage drought-like conditions. Droughts pose a major risk for the increase of wildfires, as well as floods and landslides due to soil saturation.
Colorado’s longest drought in recorded history began on October 30, 2001 and lasted for 395 weeks!! The drought ended on May 19, 2009. One of the peak moments happened during the week of July 2002. At this time, almost 35% of the state experienced exceptional drought, meaning that crops and pastures were lost as a result and the state had to implement restrictions on water use due to the massive shortage. The drought monitor has all the information on the current drought status of Colorado.
As for the future, it’s up to the people to be prudent and be water-wise. Conservation is key because droughts are bound to happen again, and the effects can be long-term.
Colorado’s topography makes it vulnerable for landslides, rockslides, and mudslides. The majority of them occur in the hilly and mountainous regions of the central and western parts of the state. Luckily, they don’t affect cities or communities too often, but when they do, the devastation can be significant. Landslides can occur when the soil is unstable, either after heavy rains, earthquakes, or human manipulation. Post-wildfire areas are extremely vulnerable to future mudslides if it rains heavily in the same area.
Becoming prepared for a landslide starts with identifying your risk. Colorado has many hills, cliffs, and mountains, making it widely prone to landslides, rockfalls, and mudslides. If you’re traveling during or shortly after times of heavy precipitation, know that there’s a higher risk in the occurrence of landslides. If you’re an avid skier or snowboarder, you should be careful when you’re out on the slopes since some regions can be prone to avalanches. Rather than living in constant fear, you should stay aware of your surroundings. Know what sounds an approaching landslide typically makes and keep your ears tuned for that. Also, observe where you would run to find higher ground when you’re in mountainous areas. This trains your mind to be prepared at all times. Check out more landslide safety tips here!
8. Power Outages
Natural disasters pose the risk of destroying electric power lines. You’ve probably experienced several short-term power outages in your lifetime and probably don’t think too much about them on the day-to-day. That’s fine, but what if a major disaster caused the power lines to be disrupted for more than a week? Don’t call me crazy, this is not too uncommon! If you can’t imagine the thought of living with no electricity for longer than a few hours, (and trust me, I don’t like the thought of it either), then you should read up on this power outage preparedness guide where I go into detail of how to become ready for a possible long-term outage in the future.
Colorado has a minor risk of earthquakes. Roughly 90 fault lines have been found throughout Colorado, and scientists say these have moved at some point within the past two million years. The investigation of how many faults are active to this day is ongoing. Some of the potentially active faults that are being observed could produce an earthquake of a 7.5 magnitude.
The largest natural earthquake ever recorded in Colorado was of a 6.6 magnitude and it occurred on November 7, 1882. Since then, much smaller quakes rattle the state— many of which are not strong enough to be felt. Drilling and other man-made impacts cause earthquakes too but those are not included in the general study of natural quakes.
When people feel an earthquake, their initial tendency is to run around and find a sturdy object. This is not a horrible idea but can become a dangerous one. If a quake is strong enough, it may be able to knock you to the ground before you can even figure out where the safest place to run to is. That’s why it’s best to drop to the ground no matter where you are, and cover your neck and head until the shaking stops. If you’re able to hold on to a sturdy object meanwhile, that’s ideal. Once the shaking stops, you can move to a safer place, just remember that aftershocks might be on their way! To learn more about earthquake safety, check out this page.
Natural disaster resources for Colorado
Colorado is an amazing state, and even though there are several natural hazards to plan for, you shouldn’t have to live in fear on account of them. Our goal is that preparedness would become a way of life for you so that you can live in peace and not worry. The following tips should help you get started!
- The NOAA Weather App does a great job of informing the public of real-time weather alerts and warnings. I usually get alerts on my phone before I hear them on the radio, so they may help you to stay updated with weather changes and disasters on the horizon. There’s a free version to the app, so no excuses for not downloading it!
- If you already know which disasters your community is prone to and want to read some tips and advice unique to each disaster, check out our guides. They’re comprehensive but not overwhelming. Preparedness doesn’t need to be stressful, so we hope we’re able to help you in the process.
- Preparedness takes on a whole new perspective when you put what you learn into practice. The US government has an organization where people can learn preparedness skills for free. This organization is the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). It’s a great way to meet other prep-enthusiasts and practice simulations together. Not just that, you will learn invaluable skills to help your family and neighbors during a crisis. Find your local CERT here!
- If you, or someone you know, are part of an organization that may be able to provide resources to those in need after a disaster, then you should get in touch with Colorado’s VOAD: Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. This team of volunteers determines the immediate needs of the community after an emergency has occurred and then manage the available resources to distribute the supplies and other resources.
- The Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is the state’s official disaster preparedness page where you can find resources and assistance during all the phases of a disaster.
I hope this article has helped you narrow down the natural disasters that are likely to affect the Centennial State. It’s important to become aware of the risks and prepare for them well in advance.
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