GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted
Guest Blogs

Climate Fears Push Some to Relocate

As wildfires worsen and sea levels rise, a small but growing number of Americans are choosing to move

Wildfires, drought, and other signs of climate change are driving some families to pull up stakes and move to areas that appear safer. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This post originally appeared at Yale Environment 360.

At first, the Ashland area of southern Oregon seemed like a great place for Mich and Forest Brazil to raise their kids: It had natural beauty, plenty of open space, and a family-friendly atmosphere.

But after they moved there from the San Francisco Bay area in 2015, high summer temperatures, water shortages, and wildfire smoke became regular features of their lives, forcing them to wear face masks well before the Covid-19 pandemic, and leading them to question whether the area was the right place for them.

Then came Sept. 8, 2020, when Forest Brazil stepped out of their rented house and had to cover his face because of smoke, dust, and debris from a fire—about three miles away—that was being water-bombed by fire-fighting planes and had provoked a panicky, high-speed evacuation on a nearby interstate.

After five years of living with fire season, it was clear to him that this was no ordinary wildfire, so he grabbed his children, gathered a few important documents from the house, and called his wife at work to say they were getting out. They picked her up and checked into a hotel, where Forest received a call from their landlord. “The house is gone,” the landlord said, and forwarded a photo taken by a neighbor showing that their home had burned to the ground.

That was the moment they knew they could no longer stay in a tinder-dry Western state, and when they became climate migrants. “I said to Mich, ‘The house is gone,’” recalled Forest, 45. “It took a couple of times saying that, and I showed her the photo, and it was just shock. Now what do we do?”

The photo shows a couple forced to relocate and interviewed for this story
Forest and Mich Brazil and their children moved to New England after a wildfire destroyed their Oregon home. Photo credit: Jon Hurdle.

Like a growing number of Americans, the Brazil family realized they could no longer live in a place where they faced soaring temperatures and worsening wildfires driven by climate change, and so decided it was time to move to a less vulnerable part of the country. They chose New England, where Mich, a psychologist, got a transfer from her employer, the U.S. Veterans Administration, to its office in White River Junction, Vermont. After more than a year of living in a series of temporary accommodations near their former Oregon home, they moved last October to an apartment in Enfield, N.H.—close to the Vermont border—where they have begun to rebuild their lives.

“I can’t tell you how many times we looked at a map of the whole country and asked, ‘Where do we want to live?’” Forest said in the basement apartment where they now live with their children, ages 5, 3, and 1. “The West Coast was no longer an option. The Midwest didn’t appeal. And then looking out here, we don’t have to worry about drought and fires. We don’t have to worry about smoke and heat.”

The family is far from alone

After being forced out of their home, the Brazil family joined other Americans escaping the worsening impacts of climate change. These migrants include New Orleans residents who fled their city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Houstonians who were driven out by flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Other communities have begun to disappear entirely. Residents of the coastal Louisiana community of Isle de Jean Charles, which sits just a foot or two above sea level, are being pushed out by rising seas. Inhabitants of coastal Native Alaskan villages such as Shishmaref and Newtok—where more intense storm surges caused by declining sea ice are eroding coasts weakened by melting permafrost—are being relocated.

Increasingly, worsening climate effects, including heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, and sea level rise, are leading a growing number of Americans to have second thoughts about where they are living and to decide to move to places that are perceived to be less exposed to these impacts, according to anecdotal reports and a growing volume of academic research. Some, like the Brazil family, are forced to move to safer areas, while others are well-to-do homeowners who are choosing to leave before fires or floods drive them out.

“How will people deal with extreme heat? Will they have access to potable water?” asked Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of real estate in the architecture school at Tulane University in New Orleans. “Temperate northern states will get the most inbound migration.”

Keenan, who studies the intersection of climate change adaptation and the built environment, estimated that 50 million Americans could eventually move within the country to regions such as New England or the Upper Midwest in search of a haven from severe climate impacts. He predicted that migration driven by increasingly uninhabitable coastal areas is likely to happen sooner rather than later, citing the latest federal estimate that U.S. coastal sea levels will rise by as much as a foot by 2050. Another projection, by Matthew Hauer, an assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University, is that 13.1 million Americans will relocate because of sea-level rise alone by 2100, based on projections that seas along the U.S. coast will rise by an average of 1.8 meters—nearly six feet—by then.

‘Turning down the dial on worry’

For Roy Parvin and his wife, Janet Vail, several years of living with wildfires around their home in northern California’s Sonoma County finally drove them some 2,600 miles to Asheville, N.C., where they pursue their respective careers in writing and publishing in a place where they do not have to be worried about fires, heat, or smoke.

In 2014, the couple thought they had built their dream home in the California town of Cloverdale. But three years later they experienced the first of a series of wildfires that came as close as a quarter-mile to the house. The fires finally convinced them that they could no longer live in the parched expanses of the American West.

“We left in 2020 after getting tired of being evacuated in the middle of the night by a policeman saying, ‘Pack your cars, take your dogs, don’t pick up anything, just go,’” said Parvin.

As they became convinced that they could no longer live in Sonoma, they briefly considered Bend, Ore., but dismissed that because of its own fire problems, and Austin, TX, but decided that would be too hot. They concluded it was time for a move out of the West altogether.

The couple decided to move to Asheville after visiting it on a book tour. They put their house up for sale 10 days before California’s Covid lockdown began in March 2020, and it quickly sold, despite the fire risk and a simultaneous exodus by some of their neighbors. Any doubt that they had made the right move was erased in 2021 when another fire destroyed a mountain cabin that they had sold when they moved to Cloverdale. “Even though we didn’t own the cabin at the time of its demise, the loss did confirm that we’d made the right decision,” he said.

Parvin, 64, said he and Vail, 63, were Cloverdale’s “first climate refugees,” all of whom were able to sell their homes for high prices, typically to wealthy San Franciscans who wanted weekend homes in the mountains despite the fire risk. “It’s part of the insanity of California—while Rome burns, they’re partying,” he said.

Proof that others aren’t as concerned about climate impacts as the Parvins can be seen in the large in-migration of people during the pandemic to places like Montana, which faces its own wildfire and water threats; Texas, where temperatures are steadily rising and are expected to soar this century; and Florida, where rising seas are projected to flood many coastal areas by 2100.

In Asheville, the Parvins are a continent away from the state where they lived for 37 years, but they enjoy living in a place where “it rains in the summer,” Roy said. “It just seemed like we turned down the dial on worry.”

Housing shortages are a problem

No comprehensive data exists on the scale of America’s climate migration, but there is growing local evidence that it is gathering pace. In Vermont, a recent survey of about 30 people who moved to the state from many parts of the United States since the start of the pandemic found that at least a third included climate in their decisions to relocate.

“In some cases, it was people saying, ‘The wildfire smoke is too much. There’s a scarcity of water. It’s only getting worse. The heat is too great,’” said Cheryl Morse, a professor of geography at the University of Vermont, who conducted the survey in mid-2021. “They were experiencing those things firsthand where they lived, and they were imagining Vermont would be cooler, and have more seasonality, and have more water available to them, and not have wildfire smoke.”

Vermont’s new arrivals are also driven by a desire to reduce exposure to Covid-19, an ability to work remotely, and often by handsome profits on the sale of houses in more pricey urban and suburban areas, said Morse, who conducted focus groups with her respondents.

Most migrants are motivated to move by a number of factors, including climate, said Peter Nelson, a professor of geography at Middlebury College in Vermont, who observed some of Morse’s focus groups. The respondents to Morse’s survey included one couple who moved from their coastal home in Cape Cod, Mass., to Vermont because of concerns over more powerful storms and worries that beaches were being eroded by sea-level rise.

So far, Vermont has welcomed new arrivals because its population has long been stagnant and because its employers have trouble finding workers. But its housing market doesn’t have the capacity to absorb many more people, Morse said, and home prices are rising in many parts of the state.

“We have so many open jobs, and we have been trying to think of ways to entice more people and to keep the people who are already here,” she said. “But we don’t have the housing stock. So we’re not ready.”

In the Upper Valley region straddling southern Vermont and New Hampshire, the Brazil family has been working with Kasia Butterworth, a realtor with Coldwell Banker, to find a house to buy. Butterworth said climate concerns have added to a pandemic-driven surge in demand for housing over the last two years. Prices, already fueled by a local housing shortage, have soared for new arrivals, and there’s no prospect of that changing soon, she said.

“We have zero inventory here,” she said. “I wish I could find them something to live in.”

In West Windsor, in south-central Vermont, Victoria and Will Hurd live in a house on 42 wooded acres, which they bought in early 2021 after a nationwide search for a home where they wouldn’t have to worry about heat, drought, or wildfires. The couple, previously based in Denver, almost bought houses in California, Oregon, and southern Colorado, but finally rejected them all because of climate worries.

The purpose of the photo is to show a couple who is interviewed in the article
Victoria and Will Hurd moved to Vermont from Colorado to get away from worsening fires, heat, and drought. Photo credit: Jon Hurdle.
Now, they have a property that’s home to otters and beavers, where they keep rare breeds of chickens, and where they feel protected from the worst effects of climate upheaval.

Victoria, 30, said they count themselves as climate migrants because they refused to live with growing climate threats. “We would not have ended up here had the wildfires not happened,” she said, referring to a fire that had charred the forest within three miles of a house that they had planned to buy in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. But the couple acknowledged that nowhere is immune from climate change, as shown by Hurricane Irene, which doused Vermont with at least eight inches of rain on August 28, 2011, killing three people, destroying or damaging some 3,500 homes, and causing more than $700 million in property damage.

Victoria and Will see themselves as trailblazers and hope to persuade their friends and family to join them in the New England woods. Their migrant neighbors may soon include Will’s uncle, Steve Hurd, who, with his wife, Lauri, is considering his own move away from his native Colorado, which he said is becoming unlivable because of global warming.

“I have lived here my whole life, and I have never witnessed the intensification and acceleration of the climate drying out and heating up the way it has, and these crazy temperature variations,” said Steve Hurd, 71, a retired flight attendant.

In Enfield, N.H., Mich and Forest Brazil are still coming to grips with the enormity of losing their home and their possessions, living in five places in two years, and moving across the country to a new climate and a new culture. They still feel dislocated and dispossessed and so far have been unable to afford to buy a new house, postponing any sense of closure after their upheaval, said Forest, a stay-at-home dad.

“Once we get a home and our kids are upstairs in bed, and we get a moment, we are probably just going to cry,” he said.


Jon Hurdle is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to The New York Times on a variety of topics.

16 Comments

  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    Ernest Hemingway, in The Sun Also Rises, included this dialogue about the two ways that bankruptcy occurs: “Gradually and then suddenly.” That's how the real estate market will change in areas most affected by climate change.

  2. Forrest Stanley | | #2

    The people profiled in this article are the intelligent, the rational, and the lucky
    ones - those who come later will, in general, be people who for a variety of
    reasons resisted or ignored accumulating evidence of the problems. One cringes
    at the thoughts of the misery, poverty and political stupidity which will prevail
    if we reach a climatic tipping point and half of the population of a state like Florida
    suddenly decides to move to a Vermont or a Nebraska.

    1. Eric Habegger | | #5

      I'm afraid articles like this, while interesting and tend to focus the mind, have a darker effect that we can all recognize. They tend to increase the ferocity of the culture wars in this country. I see Forrest's comment being evidence of that. Certainly, there are stupid people who don't assess risks wisely, but there are vastly more people who are locked into financial and social commitments in risky locations from circumstances occurring long before this latest acceleration of climate change.

      Yes, it's very easy to say from afar that anyone who hasn't moved already is "stupid". Before saying that it might be wiser to consider what walking in someone else's shoes might entail. It would be better to think ahead and not use an article like this to create still more social division.

      1. James Someone | | #6

        I don't believe Forrest's comment is causing division. He's commenting on what it looks like, and how it will go down eventually. It is going down.

        People have forgotten there is no exception to the laws of nature. We have consumed to many resources and have gone far past the point of equilibrium. In nature, only the swift and strong adapt and survive. Those that believe our great leaders will save us will be the first to perish.

        1. Eric Habegger | | #7

          Blah, blah, blah. "I'm smart and you aren't. Because you live in an environmentally risky area you are therefore stupid. You also don't believe in evolution or science because you live in an environmentally dangerous area." That seems like what you are trying to say. What seems to me is a better reason for your emotional reasoning is that you may have some innate hatreds of some people and you need to invent reasons for that to make you feel better. Being a victim in this latest acceleration of climate change serves as a good excuse.

          Is that it bucky? Sorry, but you really angered me with your attitude and assumptions about people caught up in climate circumstances that have accelerated very recently. My sixth-grade teacher in the '60s told us about climate heating due to anthropogenic increase of CO2. I've always believed it. But of course, EVERYONE on the west coast should have moved out immediately. And anyone who hasn't has only themselves to blame.

          We're all in this together. Have you heard of blaming the victim? That's exactly what you are doing, and you should be ashamed of yourself and for encouraging others to do it as well.

          1. John Clark | | #8

            What's he's saying is that individuals must adapt and overcome. For example the Dust Bowl caused over 2 million people to leave the plains. It was the largest migration in US history.

            The western US for the last few thousand years has always been arid. Tens of millions of people alone were going to put massive pressure on the system w/out changes in climate. Perhaps that time is coming on sooner rather than later?

          2. Eric Habegger | | #9

            John, I actually agree with you, and you said it well. You are right. But there are degrees and there are probability variances about how things play out. Everyone, and I mean everyone, weighs those things in making their life decisions. In a human lifetime one can make a decision that makes sense using strictly probabilities. If one lived several lifetimes that same decision would not make sense based on probabilities.

            What I object to very much in the tone of this article and the responses to it is the Schadenfreude. There are people, such as me, who made very reasonable decisions to live in Northern California in the early '2000s. That could also be said of people moving to parts of Oregon, Washington, Colorado at that time. There didn't seem to be a high probability of the frequency and intensity of fires that have occurred recently. Does anyone think that we all would have made the same choices if we knew what we know now.

            Life is about probabilities essentially, but we tend to ignore that. We don't know where things will get bad next because we don't have perfect knowledge. It's sort of like probabilities in quantum mechanics. But there is an attitude out there that shows up in this article, and the responses to it, that we do have perfect knowledge. It's sort of like my 6th grade teacher telling me, and convincing me, that anthropogenic warming is coming. The problem is where will it happen first? You don't know that.

            All these know-it-alls that are tut-tutting about how one should have known it will affect you personally are just cherry picking after the fact. If things progress and one lives long enough, many of those same people that are pointing the finger will also be affected in ways that they can't imagine right now. Life has a way of coming for you in ways you didn't expect so it pays to not generalize and be overly harsh in ones judgements of others. Schadenfreude is a very uncomplimentary look for GBA.

          3. James Someone | | #11

            You gave me a good laugh, Eric. It's understandable to be upset with the state of current events in the world, it shows you care. I also care. I agree with most of your original comment, however I don't think Forrest's comment deserved your harsh criticism. Nor did mine. No hard feelings. I certainly won't be waiting in line for an apology from you. Good luck.

          4. PBP1 | | #16

            I like John's comment too. Climate change is nothing new, just today's awareness of different factors and perhaps a chance to do something about them. Maybe the most dynamic/drastic factors have been the sun, the moon, volcanoes and meteors - if one of those factors goes awry, we're all screwed.

            GBA helps educate and highlight responsibility and awareness of the local and global environment, there's no living in a "bubble" on Earth.

  3. Peter L | | #3

    The article left out pandemics. One thing learned from the COVID-19 pandemic was that living in a large metropolitan city was one of the worst places to be during a pandemic. One only needs to look at New York City to see the chaos, death rates, virus outbreaks and draconian lock downs that left the city in shambles. Cramming millions of people into a small metropolitan area during a pandemic is just a recipe for easy virus spread and huge death tolls. Just look at how many people moved out of NYC after COVID-19. https://www.mymove.com/moving/coronavirus-moving-trends/

    1. Expert Member
      Malcolm Taylor | | #4

      Peter,

      Not surprisingly the article didn't mention pandemics, wars, industrial decline or lots of other factors that can drive population movement - because it is about the effects of climate change.

      1. Peter L | | #10

        Harvard released an article tying in climate change and the pandemic.
        https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/c-change/subtopics/coronavirus-and-climate-change/

        "As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat. That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.

        Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs. Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people. Less demand for animal meat and more sustainable animal husbandry could decrease emerging infectious disease risk and lower greenhouse gas emissions."

        As also did Frontiers in Medicine:
        https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmed.2021.769208/full

        "Hopefully, we can accept the evidence that climate changes have contributed to the emergence, transmission, and perhaps even the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, but additional ongoing problems are occurring in the modern world that also are impacting the pattern of the pandemic. One of these is environmental pollution. "

        So per these two scientific papers, one can correlate that the pandemic and climate change go hand in hand.

        1. James Someone | | #12

          Peter,

          Whether it can be proved or not, all things/events on this planet are connected in one way or another to some degree and have consequences for all, nature and mankind alike.

          Where the planet is heading solely due to manmade degradation, seems like it could be plotted with great accuracy.

  4. Dan S | | #13

    > Parvin, 64, said he and Vail, 63, were Cloverdale’s “first climate refugees,” all of whom were able to sell their homes for high prices, typically to wealthy San Franciscans who wanted weekend homes in the mountains despite the fire risk. “It’s part of the insanity of California—while Rome burns, they’re partying,” he said.

    I know it's a sort of sport these days to bag on Californians with generalizations like this, but in fact, it's a tiny sliver of both Californians and San Franciscans who are buying weekend mountain homes, much less "Partying while Rome burns". California has the lowest rate of second-home ownership in the country:

    https://patch.com/california/san-francisco/california-residents-are-among-least-likely-own-their-own-homes-nation

    ... and the majority of those second homes are concentrated in a few locations:

    https://www.pacaso.com/blog/californias-hottest-second-home-markets

    The wealthy in CA are no different than the wealthy anywhere else - buying homes is something they do with their pocket change.

    Among regular people in CA (even San Francisco), I see more climate adaptation concern than I see climate refugeeism. Of course, that depends on what the stakes are. If you are in a very high burn risk zone, it might be time to get out.

    But otherwise, it might be time to trim back foliage near your house, install an air filtration system, and consider non-flammable siding.

    The biggest force currently driving people out of CA is the high housing prices, not climate change effects.

    1. Eric Habegger | | #14

      Yes! Prejudice usually shows up in the altering of facts to suit the prejudice. That shows up here in the cheap shot characterizing Californians partying while Rome burns. If that was true California would not have the highest adoption of solar panels and EV purchases in the country, except for perhaps Hawaii. GBA is not immune to having deep prejudices running through the community and for it to occasionally show up in hit piece articles like this.

      I should add one more thing. I've heard many people saying erroneous things like "I've heard this numerous times from Californians themselves". You know who you are who have said this. It makes falsehoods much easier to propagate if you pretend that the opinion originates from Californians themselves. There are always isolated people who are disgruntled in any community and to use those people's arguments as the statistical norm is a form of intellectual dishonesty. I think GBA can, and should, do better than this.

      1. Eric Habegger | | #15

        "GBA is not immune to having deep prejudices running through the community and for it to occasionally show up in hit piece articles like this."

        I don't want to replicate the overgeneralizations about people that the article made. It's not everybody here that has that prejudice. There are many more fine people than not here on GBA. "However", there are some people here who tend to cave to their preexisting ideas and prejudices about things which don't conform to reality.

Log in or create an account to post a comment.

Related

Community

Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |