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Growing Number Of Wildfire Survivors Are Migrating To Idaho

Bureau of Land Management

The ever-increasing number of wildfires in the West is sobering. But put the statistics aside and you'll find countless stories of loss and heartbreak.

Idaho native Katie McConnell, at the Yale School of the Environment and member of Boise State's Hazard and Climate Resilience Institute, spends her days listening to those stories. In fact, her research has led her back home because, it turns out, many wildfire survivors across the West have moved to Idaho.

"I think the decisions that people are making are pretty complex," said McConnell. 

In a conversation with Morning Edition host George Prentice, McConnell talks about her PhD research project, and how she expects her dissertation could grow into something bigger, "because, unfortunately, we expect these large fires to continue."

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice.  Wildfire. Even the word conjures urgency and fear. We're going to talk a bit about wildfire this morning and how a number of survivors of wildfires have made their way to Idaho. Katie McConnell is a student at Yale. She grew up here in Idaho. She's also a member of Boise State's Hazards and Climate Resilience Institute. Katie, good morning.

KATIE MCCONELL: Good morning. Thanks for having me, George.

PRENTICE: You're a Ph.D. student. And this is part of your research, your dissertation?

KATIE MCCONNELL: Exactly. I study sociology. So,I'm thinking about how wildfires impact human communities.

PRENTICE: So, can I take a layperson's guess here on part of your thesis? Can I assume that survivors of wildfires elsewhere…some of them have come to Idaho… in search of something that they may have lost?

Credit Courtesy Katie McConnell
Katie McConnell

MCCONNELL: That's a really interesting way of framing it. And I guess for a little bit of background, I'm in the early stages of talking with folks who've moved here to Idaho because the fire affected their community somewhere else. And from the conversations I've had so far, I think the decisions people are making are pretty complex and have to do with where they can find affordable housing, or with where they know friends, or family who can help them move to a new place. Or in some instances where folks feel like they would be welcomed politically. So, it's a pretty complicated picture, actually.

PRENTICE: So, we're obviously talking about survivors of the 2018 Camp Fire. Some of us have heard about folks who survived that and moved here, but there were significant wildfires last summer. So can I assume that you're opening this dissertation up to all of that?

MCCONNELL: Yeah, that's exactly what happened. I originally started out doing this research focused exclusively on the aftermath of the Camp Fire. But as has become apparent to everyone, that scope of wildfire damage is becoming normal. It's no longer sort of a one-off crazy event. And so, we saw a horrendous fire season last summer that resulted in many, many folks losing their homes. And it's really hard to understand and to know actually where people move at large scales after an event like last summer. And so, I'm still trying to sort of track down folks and get a sense of whether they have moved to Idaho.

PRENTICE: I have to assume that COVID brought a fair amount of your research to a halt.

MCCONNELL: Yeah, absolutely. I had just started this work back last winter before everything shut down, and I was meeting people in their homes, having conversations. And I really preferred doing interviews that way. It's just much more personal and comfortable. It has not felt like that's a safe way to go about research. And so, I'm trying to get things back up off the ground, doing some interviews and phone interviews, sort of like what I imagine your job is like, George.

PRENTICE: Very quickly, this must become very personal… these conversations.

MCCONNELL: Yes. Absolutely.

PRENTICE: Talk to me about that.

MCCONNELL: I think about wildfire survivors in a broad spectrum. Some folks moved to… maybe because the school their children went to was damaged. Or the air quality posed issues to their health and they moved, whereas some other folks had near-death experiences escaping a fire. So, for those folks, they're still very much living with what are sometimes traumatic experiences and enormous amounts of loss. So, yeah, these are definitely very heavy conversations.

PRENTICE: Let's get technical for a moment, because I'm certain that research like this also has to be technical. Do you define “survivor” somehow?

MCCONNELL: That's a great question. You know, I started using that word because that's the language that folks who survived the campfire used. And so, I tried to adopt the language of the folks I'm speaking with, rather than using my own language and putting it onto their experience. But I have been trying to think through this term and think about it more broadly. And in some ways, I think I need a better word. I'm also interested in folks who've had to move due to what I would call sort of secondary impacts of wildfires. To give you an example of something we saw happen: after the Camp Fire, a huge amount of people who lived in Paradise overnight lost their home, many of them immediately moved about 20 minutes away to a town called Chico, which in turn caused housing prices to increase pretty dramatically. As a result, there are many folks who were living in Chico who can no longer afford to live there, or are being evicted by landlords who want to increase the price of their rentals. So, then you have the second wave of people who are leaving because of fire-related reasons, even though their home was not directly damaged or destroyed by the fire.

PRENTICE: I can't help but think that there are folks listening right now who know someone or know someone who knows someone that falls into this category. How can they reach you? How can you reach them? How can they make that connection?

MCCONNELL: Thank you so much for asking this question… in part because it's really hard to find folks. Folks tend to be dispersed and not necessarily getting together in a common space where they're easy to meet. But I put together a website where people can find me, wildfiresurvivorsIdaho.org. So, at this website, there's information about me, my contact information. And there's also a form where, if you want to, sign up to sit down for an interview or conversation or even just learn more about the work.

PRENTICE: Might Zoom also be your friend in being able to reach a fair amount of these folks?

MCCONNELL: Absolutely. I am hoping to talk to folks from across Idaho, not just here in the Treasure Valley where I'm based. And so, I hope that being able to do these interviews remotely, on Zoom or by phone, if folks prefer that, I can also start speaking with people who may live in north Idaho. There's a cluster of Camp Fire survivors who relocated there.

PRENTICE: Can I assume that your work depends on you being in the moment in these conversations?

MCCONNELL: Absolutely. I think especially because, like you mentioned, these conversations are very heavy and personal. It takes full attention. And me being there not just as a researcher, but also as a human, a neighbor, someone with deep empathy for what folks have experienced.

PRENTICE: Well, so what are your professors expecting? Is this a 2021 project? What's  your deadline here?

MCCONNELL: That's a great question. I'll have to ask them. Big picture, I am hoping to be carrying out these interviews this spring and summer, maybe a little bit into the fall. And then moving into the future after I defend my dissertation, I help to keep doing this work, hopefully based here in the Treasure Valley. And I could very much imagine this becoming a larger long- term project because, unfortunately, we expect these large fires to continue. And in turn, you probably expect more people to be moving to Idaho in part as a result.

PRENTICE: If I talk to you in 2022, will it be Dr. Katie McConnell?

MCCONNELL: I sure hope so.

PRENTICE: She is Katie McConnell. One more time, the website is WildfireSurvivorsIdaho.org. I am fascinated by this. Best of luck, and I can't wait to talk to you long before you have a bunch of extra letters next to your name. Thanks so very much for giving us some time this morning.

MCCONNELL: Thank you. I really appreciate it, George. Have a good one.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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