The Americans are moving into danger zones

By Microsoft 8 Min Read

From a fire safety perspective, this is a problem. The fires in the western United States have become increasingly devastating in some cases due to climate changebut also because more humans are moving deeper and deeper into areas that were once intact forests. The overlap between civilization and wilderness exposes more people to fires And offers more opportunities to ignite them—throwing cigarettes out of car windows and installation power lines shaking in the wind.

Indeed, Americans are “flocking in to shoot,” say the authors of a study that post today in the diary Frontiers in human dynamics. Using census data, the researchers found that people are moving en masse to areas increasingly prone to catastrophic wildfires or plagued by extreme temperatures.

“They’re attracted perhaps to a beautiful forested mountain landscape and lower housing costs somewhere at the interface of wilderness and the city,” says University of Vermont environmental scientist Mahalia Clark, lead author of the paper. “But they are totally unaware that bushfires are something they should even think about. It’s not really something the realtor will tell them about, or that will be in the real estate listing.

In the map above, you can see overall U.S. migration trends by county, from 2010 to 2020. The blue bits are “cold” spots, meaning more people stayed than arrived—note the Midwest and South . The red zones are “hot” spots, where more people have arrived than have left. You can see many of them in the Northwest, as well as Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Florida, all of them already have problems with fires. Fire seasons — periods of hot, dry, windy days when flames can spread out of control — will only get worse in these places as the climate warms. Those seasons will get longerthe landscape will become more ariddry vegetation will accumulate higher up, and all of this can lead to fires so big that they create their own storm cloudsthat sparkles still more fires with their lightning. Oh, and don’t forget that the American West is already in the in the grip of an unrelenting mega-drought.

The map below shows how migration is intertwined with wildfire risk. Blue indicates places where people have moved away from counties with the highest fire risk or to counties with the lowest risk. Red is the opposite, showing regions where people are moving towards higher-risk counties or away from lower-risk counties.

The more people move into fire regions, the more opportunities there will be for them to accidentally start fires and build things that can burn. “Where people are moving now is going to determine where people are building houses now, and all this other infrastructure that goes with population growth,” Clark says. “Maybe we need to think about how to disincentivise people who move into danger, and maybe even retreat from areas at greatest risk from hurricanes and wildfires.”

Clark’s model found that people are indeed moving away from hurricane risk; southern states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama are migration cold spots, as the first map showed. Florida, however, is a hot spot, exposing more people to hurricanes And fires, which frequently burn the panhandle.

Clark also found that Americans are moving away from places prone to fleeting heatwaves, like the Midwest, but are flocking to areas with consistently higher summer heat, like the Southwest. In the map above, red is where people have moved away from places with relatively cool summers or to areas with relatively warm summers, while blue is the opposite.

These changes could be due to a number of overlapping economic and social factors. “People move away from areas of high unemployment—you find that they tend to be kind of rural areas with a long history of economic depression,” says Clark. “So we have people moving from 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 (except for Florida and Texas) and into the booming economic Northwest, where wildfire risk is high.

And while it’s true that some of America’s wealthiest may seek the beauty of wooded areas, especially as the pandemic has allowed more people to work remotely, with no ties to a specific city, the economic pressure could be forcing others there too. Skyrocketing home prices and the cost of living are driving people to places where homes are cheaper, especially on the expensive West Coast.

“As temperatures rise, as conditions get drier and hotter and home prices become more unaffordable, it will definitely push people into these rural areas,” says Kaitlyn Trudeau, data analyst at the nonprofit Climate Central that Education fires but was not involved in the new study. “Some people have no choice.”

The increase in the number of people living in fire zones has a cost: that of 2018 deadly camp fire in California alone it led to $16.5 billion in losses. And that’s not to mention the expense of fighting fires or preventing them with methods such as controlled burns.

There are also hidden costs, such as the health effects of wildfire smoke– even if your house doesn’t burn down, you’re still inhale harmful particles and mushrooms. “I think we’re just starting to quantify and understand how big the effect of smoking is,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison forest ecologist Volker Radeloff, who Education the urban-wild interface, but was not involved in the new study. “But that makes controlled burns difficult, because even if the fire is controlled, the smoke can’t be. This is a real threat to people, especially if they have asthma or other lung disease.”

Overall, 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,” Trudeau says. “You can’t help but feel your stomach sink a little.”

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