Clark also found that Americans are moving away from places prone to fleeting heat waves, like the Midwest, but flocking to areas with consistently higher summer heat, like the Southwest. On the map above, red is where people have been moving away from places with relatively cool summers or toward areas with relatively hot summers, while blue is the opposite.
These changes could be due to a number of overlapping economic and social factors. “People are moving away from areas of high unemployment; you find they tend to be rural areas with a long history of economic depression,” says Clark. “So we have people moving from areas along the Mississippi River and through the Great Plains and parts of the Midwest and South.” As a result, Americans are generally migrating away from hurricane risk along the Gulf Coast (except for Florida and Texas) and into the economically booming Northwest, where wildfire risk is high.
And while it’s true that some of the wealthiest Americans may be seeking the beauty of wooded areas, especially as the pandemic has allowed more people to work remotely, untethered to a specific city, the economic pressure may be forcing others there too. Skyrocketing home prices and the cost of living are pushing people toward places where homes are cheaper, especially on the expensive West Coast.
“As temperatures rise, as things get drier and hotter and house prices get more unaffordable, it’s definitely going to push people into these rural areas,” says Kaitlyn Trudeau, data analyst at the nonprofit organization Climate Central that studies wildfires but was not involved in the new study. “Some people have no other choice.”
The increase in the number of people living in wildfire zones comes at a cost: the deadly 2018 Camp Fire in California alone caused $16.5 billion in losses. And that’s not to mention the cost of fighting fires or preventing them through methods like controlled burns.
There are also hidden costs, such as the health effects of wildfire smoke: even if your house doesn’t catch fire, you’re still inhaling nasty particles and fungus. “I think we are just beginning to quantify and realize how big the effect of smoke is,” says Volker Radeloff, a forest ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who studies the wildland-urban interface but was not involved in the new study. “However, that makes controlled burns difficult, because even if the fire is controlled, the smoke can’t be. That’s a real threat to people, especially if they have asthma or other lung diseases.”
Taken together, the new study shows that Americans are literally moving in the wrong direction. “It’s really hard to see these population booms in these areas,” says Trudeau. “You just can’t help but feel your stomach drop a little bit.”