Five Colorado counties safest in country against natural disasters

Rodney King heads up emergency management efforts in Conejos County and plans ways to protect residents from the worst-case scenarios. But when it comes to having to act on those plans, not much catastrophic happens in this off-the-beaten-path border region south of Alamosa.

“We have no hurricanes and we have no tornadoes, although we do get high winds, the kind that can knock over power poles. We get some hail, usually pea-sized and sometimes it will get to marble-sized,” he said. “We do have earthquakes, usually along the Sangre de Cristo Range, but they are so mild that we don’t ever feel them.”

Snow is plentiful higher up, but lower down, where most residents live, paralyzing dumps aren’t common. Winter temperatures can get bitterly cold and storms do knock the power out about twice a year up in the canyons. But locals are used to burning wood and coping until the power comes back on.

The county was among the first in Colorado to record a severe pine beetle infestation years ago and wildfires remain a year-round risk. Last May, one of the larger ones in recent history, the Menkhaven fire, took about eight days to put out at a cost of $1.6 million, King said. But the fire didn’t destroy any buildings or claim any lives.

“We expect some flooding this spring, down in the flatter part of the county,” he said. “But it is normal for our rivers to run over their banks and it helps with the native hay and grass.”

Nationally, the number of massive natural disasters causing $1 billion or more in damage, adjusted for inflation, has risen from 84 between 1983 to 2002 to 221 between 2003 to 2022, an increase of 163%, according to a study from QuoteWizard, an insurance marketplace. Colorado, once considered a comparatively calm state, went from 14 to 49, which ranked eighth among states with a 250% gain.

Some of that increase reflects the strong population gains along the Front Range and higher home values. Scientists attribute the increase in more extreme and damaging storms to higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And while climate models have generated hand-wringing about what comes next if conditions continue to worsen, less attention is paid to “safe” zones, places like Conejos, which takes its name from the plentiful rabbits that Spanish-speaking settlers noticed.

Conejos currently ranks as the third “safest” county in the country when it comes to property insurance claims from natural disasters and by 2050 it is expected to move up to second under a severe climate change scenario, predicts CoreLogic, a real estate data analysis firm. Of the 10 U.S. counties that CoreLogic expects will be the “safest places to live in the U.S. for natural disasters” by 2050, half are located in Colorado.

Surprisingly, heavily forested Summit County comes in as the third safest place by 2050, with Eagle, San Juan and Chaffee counties holding spots 8 to 10.

Scenic downtown Salida on July 24, ...
People walk through downtown Salida on July 24, 2022, in Chaffee County. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

“There is a narrow location window of the part of the U.S. where these counties are all clustered,” said Anand Srinivasan, an executive with CoreLogic focused on climate change. The climate change sanctuary covers swaths of eastern Utah, western Colorado and northern New Mexico.

CoreLogic sells products and data to insurers. For the study, it assessed how likely different kinds of perils were and how risks might correlate, say wildfires that contributed to mudslides or flooding during hurricanes or hail damage from tornados. It then looked at the characteristics of properties within counties, things like building height and age, that could contribute to damage resistance, and it evaluated replacement costs, normalizing values so a San Francisco could be compared with a Wichita.

To gauge how risk might change going forward, the study looked at different climate scenarios as determined by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and modeled the more severe “8.5” scenario for its 2050 calculations. The study also estimated earthquake exposure, which isn’t directly linked to climate change, but could cause massive devastation in certain states like California.

“All we have done is take a look on a county-by-county basis to see which counties fared the best,” Srinivasan said.

Looking ahead, the northeast will face more massive and crippling snow storms. The Texas and Florida coasts are expected to get hammered with more extreme hurricanes and higher storm surges. Larger and longer-lasting tornados and more punishing hail storms are expected to rake the Plains states, one reason Colorado’s eastern counties don’t make the list. And California is overdue for more intense seismic events, the kind that could generate large tsunamis.

The western half of Colorado stands out for how calm it is now and how calm it will remain when it comes to the risks associated with natural disasters.

New snow coats the town of Avon in Eagle County, Colo., Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. The valley picked up anywhere from half a foot to three quarters of a foot of new snow. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily via AP)
New snow coats the town of Avon in Eagle County, Colo., Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily via AP)

The last of us

A lot of people have been moving to places like Florida and Texas, which face elevated risks from disasters. Damages from disasters are making their way into high insurance premiums, and over time, insurance coverage in certain parts of the country could become cost prohibitive or simply not available.

Could the lightly populated swaths of western Colorado, eastern Utah and northern New Mexico see a surge of climate refugees in the decades if people start moving around? Might Mesa County, one of the safest counties currently, become home to another The Villages, the largest retirement community in Florida, a haven for millennials who want to avoid spending their golden years in the eye of a hurricane? Not so fast say other experts.

PolicyGenius, an online insurance marketplace, ranked Colorado as the third most vulnerable state to wildfires after California and Texas, with 373,900 properties at high to extreme risk, or 17% of the 2.2 million homes and condos. Colorado had 1,017 wildfires that burned 48,195 acres in 2021, which ranked 18th in terms of actual acres burned, according to the analysis.

Damage from wildfire in particular is very difficult to model and predict, said Hussam Mahmoud, professor of civil engineering and director of the structural laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, after reviewing the CoreLogic study.

Mahmoud has extensively studied the structural damage caused during natural disasters and recently created a model for wildfires that takes into account 80 different parameters. When tested against the Marshall fire in Boulder County, which destroyed more than a thousand homes, it predicted with 73% accuracy what buildings would survive and which would burn, he said.

“You can’t say a place is safe or not safe from wildfire without understanding these parameters,” he said.

Probabilities also need to be taken into account. Just because insurance claims in a given region have been subdued over long stretches of time doesn’t necessarily mean they will stay that way. It might be that things are building up for the “big one.” One big earthquake followed by a tsunami or a 1,000-year flood or a major wildfire can change everything.

“It doesn’t mean this area is safe,” he cautioned.

Mahmoud also said direct and indirect societal costs need to be taken into account. Someone living in a sparsely populated county may have a harder time finding shelter or accessing the resources needed to rebuild if and when a wide-scale disaster strikes.

“Even if the probability of my home getting damaged is low, if it is damaged, can I rebuild it quickly?” he asked.

Fred Haberlein murals decorate the town ...
Fred Haberlein murals decorate the town of Antonito in Conejos County, seen here May 30, 2018. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

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