Highlands Ranch tornado tore out 16,000 trees, but built community

“Were you home when the tornado hit? Did you have damage?”

Those are the first questions people in Highlands Ranch are asking each other when meeting up nowadays, a few weeks after the wildest weather event anyone can remember experiencing in the suburb south of Denver.

The next discussion is likely about how to replace what has been destroyed, mostly the trees.

On that humid Thursday afternoon, Douglas County was hit by one of those wild Colorado storms that for tens of thousands of residents in Highlands Ranch is now an indelible life moment. Thankfully, no one was hurt by the technically small (EF-1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale) but destructive tornado on June 22. Very few actually saw the twister cloaked in sheets of rain and hail as it hit Northridge Elementary School and blasted across homes and businesses for more than 6 miles just south of C-470, from Lucent Boulevard to Quebec Street

But some doorbell cameras caught the action, like this one.

The tornado was powerful enough to destroy an estimated 16,000 mature trees along major parkways and residential yards. Douglas County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is still assessing the damage in order to request a national disaster declaration that could provide funding for repairs. Countless homeowners are in the process of filing claims with their insurance companies and finding out what is and isn’t covered.

The soundtrack of summer now includes chainsaws and wood chippers.

Beyond the expense, many are lamenting the loss of so many large trees that created shade, privacy, bird habitats and seasonal beauty. For the community to be transformed in such a striking visual way in a matter of minutes has everyone processing a sense of shock, sadness, and relief that it wasn’t worse.

“We moved here from the Midwest nine years ago and we’ve never experienced a tornado before now,” said Jennifer Smith, who sheltered in her basement with their two daughters and their pets while her husband, Matt, peered cautiously out main floor windows. “The winds were blowing in all directions,” he said. “It felt like you were inside a washing machine.

Luckily, the couple didn’t lose any of their own trees, but said a large aspen across the street was knocked over. They spent July 1 making trips to the Eastridge Recreation Center parking lot to shovel fresh mulch into buckets and cardboard boxes for xeriscaping their yard. Mountains of chipped trees are piled up in several locations around town, including near the post office on Quebec and University. Residents are being encouraged to take as much as they would like.

“We also took one of those large stumps for the garden,” Smith said pointing to a pile of pine trees that had been sliced into sections like large souvenirs, each revealing inner rings numbering more than 30. And the air around Highlands Ranch is perfumed with the pungent smell of pine sap.

Longtime local plant nursery The Gardens has been doing brisk business since the storm. Staffer Kate Kator was at work when the tornado warning blared on the smartphones of everyone inside the store. Some customers rushed to their cars and drove home, while others chose to wait it out with the employees. Kator says within 10 minutes, dark clouds were overhead soon followed by rain and hail blasting in first from west to east, then from east to west.

“One of our gazebos flew up into the trees and portions of the greenhouse and main store roofs were torn off,” she said. “Some of our fencing blew over and the greenhouse flooded.”

A large Scotch Pine just outside their gate blew down, but the next day they were able to prop it back up into place because the rootball was intact. “We’re advising our customers that phosphorous can help trees re-root, and nitrogen will help them grow. A lot of people are coming in asking for replacement trees. We don’t sell large trees, and right now we are just getting in small shrubs that we ordered weeks ago.

“People are buying annuals to replace the flowers they lost, but a lot of people are sad about their shade trees. One customer did say she’s gained a lot of extra space in her yard for the kids to play in now.”

A few years ago, the Colorado State Forest Service came out with recommendations for homeowners along the Front Range who want fast-growing trees.

The blue spruce was listed high up, along with silver maples, white oak varietals and catalpa trees, which are known for their white fragrant flower clusters and heart-shaped leaves. These could become the next generation of popular trees in Highlands Ranch.

“This storm affected more of our evergreen trees than the deciduous varieties,” noted Kator. “Those had broken branches, but the evergreens have more shallow roots and were uprooted by the winds. In Highlands Ranch, we have hard-packed soil once you get past the layer of clay, so it’s hard for roots to go deep.”

Kator said people can plant trees between March and October in Colorado as long as they are well watered for the first couple weeks to get them established. She expects the demand to be extremely high for trees like the flowering crabapples.

Kator noted The Gardens owners Steve and Michelle Smith opened their business in 1997 when Highlands Ranch had many fewer (and smaller) trees. Newcomers don’t know there was a time when the now-mature trees along the greenbelts, parks and subdivisions in the community were just saplings.

Gary Debus served as community manager of Highlands Ranch for 20 years starting in 1991. He recalls the rolling grasslands, where pronghorn and prairie dogs lived. “When Highlands Ranch began in 1981 with the first house, there were very few trees and those that were on the Ranch were native types along with some small native shrubs. Grasslands covered most of the development area.”

Debus said, “Landscape architects developed the parkway plantings and commercial areas that added aesthetics. As new homes were built and sold, homeowners started completing their own landscapes. It was very easy to tell where the newest areas were. Critics dubbed us a ‘sea of rooftops.’ But Highlands Ranch was soon designated a Tree City USA.”

Charla Kelly specializes in helping people buy and sell homes here. She lives close to the community’s original Mansion, which lost numerous large trees in the storm. She said it’s sad, but people have been outside talking with each other more.

“Neighbors have been helping each other,” she said. “People with trucks have been transporting branches to the drop-off sites.”

Kelly hopes those looking to plant new trees in their yards will remember to contact Colorado 811 before doing any digging and potentially hitting buried power lines. It’s the reason no one lost power during the storm, but it’s easy to forget that and start shoveling. Homeowners can go online to request their lines be located and flagged at https://www.colorado811.org/ or just call 811.

Dave and Laura Mutton have lived in their Highlands Ranch home for 21 years. They lost a tree that was planted by the previous owners but had grown to have special meaning for their family. This was the tree where they took annual back-to-school photos of their children from kindergarten through 12th grade. The kids are now out of the nest, and the tree that appears in so many cherished photos is also gone. Their daughter, Julia, was the one who mentioned the photos that feature her and her brother Andrew smiling and hanging on to a limb, even hugging the tree that was like part of their family as they themselves grew each year.

That kind of tree can never be replaced.

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