More Americans Are Moving to Dangerous Wildfire Zones

As the climate warms, wildfires are getting bigger, more frequent and more devastating. Yet Americans still prefer to migrate to fire-prone areas across the country, according to a new study.

It is not entirely clear what motivates people to move to dangerous areas. The appeal of big cities with strong economies, stunning landscapes, and other natural wonders may be part of the draw. And the risk of catching a fire isn’t enough to deter displacers.

That’s not all. The study also reveals that people tend to migrate to big cities with particularly hot summers, even as temperatures rise across the country.

The researchers write that the findings suggest that U.S. immigration patterns are “increasing the number of harmful people.”

Research published recently in the journal Limits in Human Dynamicslooks at patterns of human migration in the United States. It examines the factors that motivate people to enter certain areas and the factors that drive them away.

Research shows that a variety of factors can influence people who want to take action. Socioeconomic variables such as population density and cost of living are important. Natural amenities such as nearby forests and bodies of water also make a difference.

On the other hand, natural disasters such as extreme weather conditions and natural disasters can be a deterrent.

The new study used U.S. census data to compile county-level immigration statistics between 2010 and 2020. Researchers also compiled data on natural opportunities, natural hazards, and socioeconomic factors across the country. They then used statistical models to analyze the data.

The findings confirm that people are attracted to large metropolitan areas with strong economies. At the same time, people moving to more rural areas tend to be drawn towards natural features such as bodies of water and wooded landscapes.

But research also shows that while such conveniences attract people, other risks don’t always drive them away.

The researchers found that all other factors being equal, people tend to migrate away from certain natural hazards and towards others. People often moved away from areas with frequent hurricanes and heatwaves. But they have moved to areas with a higher risk of wildfire.

And although people were moving away from areas prone to heat waves, they still tended to move to places with generally warmer climates throughout the year, including cities with particularly hot summers.

The researchers suggest that the findings raise a red flag about recent migration patterns.

“Both wildfire and heat are dangerous first and foremost — they can affect people’s health, well-being and homes,” said lead study author Mahalia Clark, a graduate research fellow at the University of Vermont. “But both are dangers that must be exacerbated by climate change.”

The study has some important caveats. There are some important variables he doesn’t calculate, such as the cost of housing, a factor that can have a big impact on where people choose to move to. Clark suggested that in future research, investigating housing costs and income levels of migrating households could better explain why people choose to move to dangerous fire zones.

In some cases, people may not be well-educated about the risks, he added. The study shows that people are moving to wildfire-prone areas across the country, not just in Western states where the dangers are well known.

“I think for wildfires in particular, people… tend to think of it as something that’s affecting the West,” he said. “But it can also really affect large areas of the South and parts of the Midwest. So when people move to a new area or buy a house, they may not be completely aware that this is something they should consider.”

Clark said the findings show that policymakers should consider ways to better protect residents from natural disasters.

At the same time, he added, people should consider extreme weather and natural disasters when considering moving.

“I think it’s a good inference for people to do their research when they’re moving and looking at homes and look at what the level of bushfire risk, temperature or storm risk is here,” he said. “I think it’s a implication for people to be more aware and examine these issues for themselves.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission of POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.

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