The scale of wildfire destruction has grown exponentially in recent years, destroying nearly 25,000 buildings in the United States during 2018 alone. However, there is still limited research exploring how wildfires affect migration patterns and household finances. In this study, we evaluate the effects of wildfire destruction on in-migration and out-migration probability at the Census tract level in the United States from 1999 to 2018. We then shift to the individual level and examine changes in homeownership, consumer credit usage, and financial distress among people whose neighborhood suffered damaging fires. We pair quarterly observations from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York/Equifax Consumer Credit Panel with building destruction counts from the US National Incident Management System/Incident Command System database of wildfire events. Our findings show significantly heightened out-migration probability among tracts that experienced the most destructive wildfires, but no effect on in-migration probability. Among the consumer credit measures, we find a significant drop in homeownership among those treated by major fires. This is concentrated in people over the age of 60. Measures of credit distress, including delinquencies, bankruptcies, and foreclosures, improve rather than deteriorate after the fire, but the changes are not statistically significant. While wildfire effects on migration and borrowing are measurable, they are not yet as large as those observed following other natural disasters such as hurricanes.
In this paper, we infuse consideration of migration into research on economic losses from extreme weather disasters. Taking a comparative case study approach and using data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York/Equifax Consumer Credit Panel, we document the size of economic losses via migration from 23 disaster-affected areas in the United States after the most damaging hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires on record. We then employ demographic standardization and decomposition to determine if these losses primarily reflect changes in out-migration or changes in the economic resources that migrants take with them (greater economic losses per migrant). Finally, we consider the implications of these losses for changing spatial inequality in the United States. While disaster-affected areas and those living in them differ in their experiences of and responses to extreme weather disasters, we generally find that, relative to the year before an extreme weather disaster, economic losses via migration from disaster-affected areas increase the year of and after the disaster, that these changes primarily reflect changes in out-migration (vs. the economic resources that migrants take with them), and that these losses briefly disrupt the status quo by temporarily reducing spatial inequality.