Clark also found that Americans are moving away from places prone to fleeting heat waves, like the Midwest, yet are flocking to areas with consistently higher summer heat, like the Southwest. In 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 move away from high unemployment areas—you find those tend to be kind of rural areas with a long history of being economically depressed,” says Clark. “So we have people moving out of areas along the Mississippi River and across 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 (save for Florida and Texas), and toward the economically booming Northwest, where wildfire risk is high.
And while it’s true that some of the more affluent Americans may be seeking out the beauty of forested areas—especially as the pandemic has allowed more people to work remotely, untethered to a specific city—economic pressure may be forcing others there, too. Skyrocketing housing prices and cost of living are pushing people toward places where homes are cheaper, especially on the expensive West Coast.
“As temperatures increase—as things get drier and hotter and prices for housing get more unaffordable—it’s definitely going to push people into these rural areas,” says Kaitlyn Trudeau, a data analyst at the nonprofit Climate Central who studies wildfires but wasn’t involved in the new study. “Some people don’t have a choice.”
Increases in the number of people living in wildfire zones come at a cost: 2018’s deadly Camp Fire in California alone led to $16.5 billion in losses. And that’s to say nothing of the expense of fighting fires, or preventing them through methods like controlled burns.
There are hidden costs, too, like the health effects of wildfire smoke—even if your house doesn’t burn down, you’re still inhaling nasty particulates and fungi. “I think we’re just starting to quantify and realize how big the smoke effect is,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison forest ecologist Volker Radeloff, who studies the wildland-urban interface but wasn’t involved in the new study. “That makes controlled burns hard, though, 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 illnesses.”
Altogether, 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 like your stomach sinks a little bit.”