Americans are entering dangerous areas

Clark also found that Americans are moving away from places prone to transient heat waves, like the Midwest, but flocking to areas with consistently higher summer heat, like the Southwest. In the map above, red corresponds to where people have moved away from places with relatively cool summers or towards regions 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 with high unemployment — you find that these are usually rural areas with a long history of economic depression,” Clark says. “So we have people leaving areas along the Mississippi River and across the Great Plains and parts of the Midwest and South.” As a result, Americans generally migrate away from hurricane risk along the Gulf Coast (with the exception of Florida and Texas) and to the economically booming Northwest, where the risk of fire from forest is high.

And while it’s true that some of America’s more affluent may crave the beauty of wooded areas — especially as the pandemic has allowed more people to work remotely, without being tied to a specific city — the economic pressure can be force others there too. Soaring housing prices and the cost of living are pushing people to places where homes are cheaper, especially on the expensive West Coast.

“As temperatures rise, things get drier and hotter, and housing prices become increasingly unaffordable, that’s definitely going to push people into these rural areas,” says Kaitlyn Trudeau, data analyst at the not-for-profit organization Climate Central which studies forest fires, but did not participate in the new study. “Some have no choice”

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

There are also hidden costs, such as 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 only just beginning to quantify and realize the magnitude of the smoke effect,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison forest ecologist Volker Radeloff, who studies wild-urban land interface, but did not participate in the new study. “This makes controlled burns difficult, because even if the fire is controlled, the smoke cannot be. It’s a real threat to people, especially if they have asthma or other lung diseases.

Overall, the new study shows that Americans are literally going in the wrong direction. “It’s really hard to see these population booms in these areas,” Trudeau said. “You can’t help but feel like your stomach is sinking a bit.”

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