Despite a Changing Climate, Americans Are ‘Flocking to Fire’

Despite an increase in wildfire risk spurred by climate change, Americans are moving to wildfire-prone areas and prioritizing lower housing costs and amenities such as temperate weather and recreational opportunities over risk of natural disasters.

An analysis of U.S. migration data from the past decade published today, “Flocking to fire: How climate and natural hazards shape human migration across the United States,” shows that Americans have been moving into certain “migration hot spots” in the West, Pacific Northwest and South that have high risk of wildfires, as well as to metro areas with high summer temperatures. 

The authors write that this “dangerous public health trend” is “increasing the number of people in harm’s way,” especially as both fires and heat waves increase in frequency due to climate change. Experts concerned about public safety in these high-risk population centers urge Americans to understand their environmental risks before moving.

Migration trends are influenced by a number of factors such as job availability, housing costs, and cultural or political fit. Americans also consider so-called “natural amenities,” like a mild climate, variation in the landscape and water bodies, when they determine where to move. Such amenities act as migration “pulls,” and incentivize people to live nearby.

According to the study, led by a team from the University of Vermont and published in the journal Frontiers in Human Dynamics, the areas pulling Americans most strongly are also those where residents are at higher risk of natural disasters like wildfires and summer heat. Cities identified as migration hotspots included Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, Austin, Dallas, Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, D.C., while large swaths of the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains and the South also received a higher influx of people than surrounding areas. 

Places with high wildfire risk, said Clark, tend to also have dramatic, varied landscapes, and might be farther outside of urban areas, both qualities attractive to people looking to move. The Rockies and Pacific Northwest, both named as migration hotspots, offer plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation and have a milder, drier climate than other parts of the U.S. The hotspots in the South, such as Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta and parts of Texas, could be attracting people due to historically lower living costs, said Clark.

“It’s not that people are attracted to wildfires,” said Mahalia Clark, a doctoral student at the University of Vermont and the lead author on the study. “Something else about those counties is attractive in spite of wildfires.”

Are Americans Moving to Wildfire Zones?

Americans aren’t only moving towards places with high wildfire risk—they’re also moving into metro areas that face high summer temperatures. Heat in urban areas can be particularly deadly, as the urban heat island effect can exacerbate temperatures, causing dehydration, heat stroke and other public health concerns. Cooler “climate havens” in the Midwest and Northeast have not been receiving much migration, according to the analysis.

The study shows that “the public has not fully acknowledged the climate emergency,” said Elizabeth Fussell, a professor of population studies and the environment at Brown University who was not involved in the study, in an email. 

Risk Perception and Priorities

The research found that all things being equal, hurricane risk and probability of heat waves seemed to influence migration more than wildfire risk, with hurricanes and heat waves deterring migration to certain parts of the country.

One reason why Americans aren’t taking fire into account, said Clark, could be a simple lack of awareness about where fires are most likely to occur. For example, she said, wildfire risk is high in the mountain West, but wildfires also frequently impact parts of the South and Midwest, as well. People might be “totally unaware” that there is any risk at all in the city they’re moving to, she said. 

Fires tend to be more random than other natural disasters, too, said Gillian Galford, a professor of environmental science at UVM and a co-author on the study. Fire’s randomness could be a reason why people perceive the risk of fire to be lower, though more research is needed to fully answer the question of risk perception, she said. Fussell said fires tend to damage fewer human structures than hurricanes, which could explain the discrepancy. A 2021 study by Fussell found that only the most destructive wildfires caused a migration response.

Jesse Keenan, a professor at Tulane University who has studied climate adaptation, said he’s not surprised that Americans aren’t prioritizing wildfire risk. “When people are weighing environmental risk or climate risks together with the opportunities for growth and relative access to affordable housing,” he said, “the scale is just heavily tipped in favor of the household economy.”

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Clark urges people who are thinking of moving to begin to consider climate change and climate-related disasters as bigger factors in their decisions. 

“That’s something that a realtor or a house listing isn’t going to mention. So it’s a good thing for you to just kind of try and look up for yourself,” said Clark. She recommended an online tool by the nonprofit First Street Foundation, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Risk Index, as helpful resources for those looking to move.

Implications for Policymakers

Exacerbated by warmer springs and longer summer dry seasons, wildfires are becoming more frequent and burning more area, meaning that the risks faced by those in these migration hot spots will only grow. As more people move into such areas, the authors write, policymakers will need to “prepare strategies to mitigate climate change and natural hazards.” 

Preparation could take many forms, such as home buyout programs that pay residents affected by natural disasters not to rebuild their homes in the same spot, said Fussell. Zoning regulations that keep people out of harm’s way or bans on development in the most hazard-prone areas could also help. 

For those who choose to own a home in a wildfire-prone area, there are certain precautions to take, said Amanda West Fordham, associate director of science and data at the Colorado State Forest Service, such as paying special attention to which materials the home is made of and clearing brush and other wildfire fuel from around the property. Ultimately, she said, it is the responsibility of the homeowner to reduce their own risk, which can help keep firefighters safer, too. 

“We might want to be discouraging development in some of those highest-risk areas,” Clark said. 

Scientists don’t yet know exactly how the pandemic or the recent rise in the number of people working from home will affect these trends, Clark said. The rise in work-from-home jobs has freed up a part of the population to prioritize certain factors, like quality of life and natural amenities, over the location of their job. Keenan, on the other hand, said he doesn’t expect that the pandemic will affect migration trends very much in the long run.

Clark also said more research is needed into the effect that income has on these trends, particularly the extent to which low-income people are being driven into places with high wildfire or heat risk and might not have the financial means to take preparedness measures or buy insurance for climate-related disasters. The riskiness of these hot spots could be the very reason for some of the migration, said Fussell. “People may be responding to housing and insurance markets, where the price of housing or insurance signals environmental risk.” 

Right now, though, certain climate risks are just “not at the top of the list” of moving considerations for the average American, said Clark.

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