As the climate warms, wildfires become bigger, more frequent and more destructive. Yet Americans still choose to migrate to fire-prone areas of the country, a new research Find.
It’s not entirely clear what motivates people to relocate to dangerous areas. The allure of large cities with strong economies, spectacular landscapes, and other natural amenities may be part of the appeal. The risk of being caught in a fire wasn’t enough to deter the evicters.
That’s not all. The study also found that even as temperatures rise across the country, people tend to migrate to larger cities where summers are particularly hot.
The findings suggest that U.S. immigration patterns are “increasing the number of people at risk,” the researchers wrote.
The study was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Human Kinetics, looking at patterns of population migration across the United States. It examines what drives people into certain fields and what keeps them from doing so.
Research shows that there are a variety of factors that can influence someone who wants to relocate. Socioeconomic variables such as population density and cost of living are important. Natural features, including nearby forests and bodies of water, also have an impact.
On the other hand, natural hazards — such as extreme weather and the potential for natural disasters — can act as a deterrent.
The new study compiled county-level immigration statistics from 2010 to 2020 using U.S. Census data. The researchers also compiled data on natural facilities, natural hazards and socioeconomic factors across the country. Then they use statistical models to analyze the data.
The findings confirm that people are drawn to economically strong metropolitan areas. Meanwhile, people who move to more rural areas tend to be drawn to natural features, such as water bodies and forest views.
But the study also found that while these amenities may attract people, other risks don’t always keep them out.
The researchers found that, all other factors being equal, people tended to stay away from some natural hazards and toward others. People generally stay away from areas with frequent hurricanes and heat waves. But they moved to areas with a higher risk of wildfires.
Although people moved away from areas prone to heat waves, they still tended to move to places where the climate was generally warm year-round — including cities with particularly hot summers.
The findings raise warning signs about recent migration patterns, the researchers said.
“First and foremost, both wildfires and heat are dangerous — they affect people’s health, well-being and families,” said the study’s lead author Mahalia Clarke, a graduate researcher at the University of Vermont. “But they are all hazards that should get worse with climate change.”
The study has some important caveats. It doesn’t take into account important variables such as housing costs – a factor that can have a big impact on where people choose to relocate. Clark suggested that in future studies, delving into housing costs and income levels of relocating households might better explain why people choose to move to fire-risk areas.
In some cases, she added, it may be that people simply aren’t well educated about the risks. People are moving to wildfire-prone areas across the country — not just in western states where the dangers are notoriously high, the study suggests.
“I think with wildfires in particular, people … tend to think of it as something that affects the West,” she said. “But it does affect large swathes of the South and parts of the Midwest as well. So when people move to new areas or buy a home, they may be completely unaware that it’s something they should be thinking about.”
Clark said the findings suggest policymakers should consider ways to better protect residents from natural disasters.
At the same time, she added, people should consider extreme weather and natural disasters when considering relocation.
“I think it’s a good takeaway for people to do their research when they’re moving and looking at houses, to see what level of wildfire risk there is, what’s the level of heat or storm risk,” she said. “So I think that’s a takeaway — people might Be more aware and research these issues yourself.”
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