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Americans flock to wildfire country

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Over the past decade, there has been an influx of Americans into areas where climate change is making wildfires and extreme heat more common, according to an analysis of multiple datasets conducted at the University of Vermont. (UVM).

Generally speaking, Americans migrated to cities and suburbs in the Pacific Northwest, parts of the Southwest (in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah), Texas, Florida, and parts of the South -east (including Nashville, Atlanta and Washington, DC), according to the research.

People have moved away from the Midwest, the Great Plains and some of the hardest-hit hurricane counties along the Mississippi River, according to the research.

“Our main finding is that people seem to be moving to counties with the highest wildfire risk, and cities and suburbs with relatively warm summers. This is concerning because wildfires and heat are only expected to become more dangerous with climate change,” Mahalia Clark, the study’s lead author, told CNBC.

Areas where more people have moved into a region than out of it are in red. Areas where more people have left a region than inside are blue.

Graphic courtesy of University of Vermont

“We hope our study will raise awareness about wildfires and other climate risks when moving or buying a home, as many people might not be aware of these dangers,” Clark told CNBC. . “People tend to think of wildfires as something that affects the West, but they also affect large areas of the South and even the Midwest.”

For the research, Clark used several datasets, including net migration estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Gridded Surface Meteorological (gridMET) dataset hosted on the Google Earth Engine data catalog, and land cover data. cloudiness from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The study was published Thursday in the journal Frontiers in Human Dynamics.

Making decisions about where to live may be one of the first times the ramifications of climate change impact people’s personal lives.

“People also tend to think that climate change will affect our grandchildren, but its effects are already showing up in more frequent and severe heat waves, hurricanes and wildfires, and it is important to take these effects into account when we plan for the future, both as individuals and as a society,” Clark told CNBC.

Deciding where to move and what house to buy is a complicated decision, and people have to weigh their own personal decisions based on job, family and culture, but Clark urges people to understand the trade-offs.

“It may be that wildfire-prone areas are very attractive for other reasons (strong economy, pleasant climate, spectacular scenery with opportunities for outdoor recreation), and the perceived wildfire risks are not enough not outweigh those other benefits,” Clark told CNBC. “People who come from out of state may also not be aware of the risks. On the other hand, high-risk areas are sometimes more affordable, which unfortunately encourages people to move there. “

Probability of wildfires, frequency of heat waves and frequency of hurricanes in the United States.

Graphic courtesy of University of Vermont

Local authorities can also play a role, Clark said.

“Development in wildfire-prone areas may actually exacerbate risk, as increased human activity may spark more fires, so one implication of our work is that city planners may need to consider discouraging new development. where fires are most likely or difficult to fight,” Clark told CNBC. “At a minimum, policymakers should work to increase public awareness and preparedness and plan for sufficient fire prevention and response resources in high-risk areas with high population growth.”

The University of Vermont findings are “fairly consistent with what we’ve seen over the past 20 years with both census cycles in terms of population growth in the Pacific Northwest” Jesse M. Keenan, a professor of sustainable real estate at Tulane University, told CNBC.

Climate change is playing a role in the increase in the number of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest as the region becomes increasingly arid and drier.

“Basically, when it heats up in the atmosphere, you pull moisture, water out of the atmosphere, and that pulls it out of the biomass. So things get dry, and so you have more fuel,” Keenan said.

Insurance companies are aware of this and are assessing fire risk in the Pacific Northwest in a way they have not done in the past, Keenan said.

But homebuyers should also do their due diligence on the climate risks associated with where they are considering buying a new home. Keenan is an advisor to a company called ClimateCheck that helps identify these types of risks, but real estate websites now include “climate risk” factors like flood factor, storm risk, drought risk, heat hazard and fire hazard on listing pages.

These kinds of tools are useful, but not perfect, Keenan said. Some of it is common sense.

“If you live where there’s a good amount of forest cover near you, anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, you’re at risk for wildfires,” Keenan said.

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