Many parts of Washington will see more severe heat waves in coming decades, but that isn’t stopping an influx of new residents from moving to those communities.
New projections from a New York-based research group predict Benton and Franklin counties — home to the Tri-Cities and among the fastest-growing Washington counties in the past decade — could see heat waves above 90 degrees last nearly twice as long as they currently do. The number of days above 100 in those areas is likely to double, according to the models.
More temperate King, Snohomish and Pierce counties could see twice as many days in the mid- to high 80s. In Pierce County, eight days could hit above 90 by 2053, up from just three predicted next year, according to the new report from the First Street Foundation.
The analysis is part of a nationwide look at the future of extreme heat as experts say climate change is contributing to more severe heat waves, some of them deadly.
Other parts of the country will see more dire changes. By 2053, the report predicts an “extreme heat belt” stretching from Chicago to Texas, where temperatures will hit 125 and beyond. More areas of the Southeast will see 100 days of 100-plus temperatures each year. (The First Street Foundation says its peer-reviewed model combines existing emissions forecasts with details such as land surface temperature, canopy cover, elevation and distance to water to project temperatures in 2023 and 2053.)
While much of the West Coast is cooler, the analysis predicts the region will see longer stretches of hot days relative to what’s normal now. Without widespread air conditioning, those temperatures can still pose health risks.
“The big issue is people just aren’t prepared,” said Jeremy Porter, chief research officer at the First Street Foundation.
The analysis is “consistent with what we’re actually seeing in the data, especially in Eastern Washington,” said state climatologist Nick Bond. While temperatures are lower in Western Washington, even cooler areas are seeing more hot nights.
The heat projections join previous reports on increasing flood and wildfire risk, which residents can look up for their home or community at riskfactor.com. And those and similar risk assessments are increasingly available on major listing sites such as Redfin and Realtor.com.
But even as home shoppers may be more aware than ever of the environmental risks to properties in heat- and fire-prone areas of the state, that isn’t stopping them from moving to those same scorching regions.
Franklin and Benton counties already see the most days surpassing 90 degrees each year, and will likely see more over the next 30 years.
Already this year, the area saw a record-breaking heat wave of 100 degrees or higher for 11 straight days, and a 38-year-old Richland man who was homeless collapsed and died during the heat, the Tri-City Herald reported.
Even so, the two counties have seen the first- and third-fastest population growth in the state since 2010, according to state data.
Home values in the area are up 20%-23% since the same time last year, according to Zillow. Benton County rents have climbed 28% in the past five years, according to Apartment List.
“I think inherently if you are moving to a desert — there’s a reason trees don’t grow,” said Jeff Losey, executive director of the Homebuilders Association of Tri-Cities. “One of the reasons people move to the Tri-Cities or Yakima is because we have 300 days of sunshine. That’s attractive.”
The same trend is playing out all over the country.
New residents flocked to areas with the highest heat risk, such as Phoenix and Austin, increasing their populations by an average of 5% and as much as 16% from 2016 to 2020, according to a Redfin analysis. Areas with the fewest homes facing fire, flood and drought risk saw population declines. One potential draw? More affordable homes, according to Redfin.
The heat has made A/C standard in new construction in the Tri-Cities, Losey said. “There is nowhere you can live over here and stay comfortable without having some sort of air conditioning.”
West of the mountains, requests for air conditioners are still rare in the single-family homes built by Kurt Wilson and his Puyallup company Soundbuilt Homes.
Interest has ticked up over the past decade, but “still less than 5% of our homes opt to upgrade,” Wilson said.
“It’s not like all of a sudden we’re turning to Arizona, where we’re dealing with all-tile roofs and stucco,” he said.
Still, Wilson predicts air conditioning could become more common because of state energy regulations. Those rules require single-family home developers to earn a certain number of “energy credits” based on various green features and incentivize heat pumps, which can operate as air conditioners.
Wilson argues the regulations are burdensome for developers and costly for homebuyers. But compared to the other features he can add to a new house to meet the state rules, heat pumps “can create value for those buyers.”
Meanwhile, thousands of renters and homeowners across the state will continue to live in older buildings without A/C units as temperatures rise.
“People die of heat-related health conditions … We’re not supposed to be this hot,” said Leslie Hines, energy program manager at the Colville nonprofit Rural Resources, which offers air conditioner assistance.
Seniors centers often become cooling centers during heat waves, but in rural areas, those hubs can be hours away.
“We have case workers who’ve gone into people’s homes,” Hines said. “They contact me immediately and say, ‘It was over 90 degrees in that house. Get them an air conditioner, please.’”
After last year’s deadly heat dome, the state expanded an energy assistance program typically used for winter heating bills to also cover air conditioning. To qualify, applicants must make 150% of the poverty level or less, or $32,940 a year for a family of three.
Since October, nonprofits have distributed about 3,400 units across the state, according to the state Department of Commerce.
Rural Resources has received 320 requests for air conditioning units this year and given out around 250 free-standing portable air conditioners so far, Hines said.
“We did no advertising,” Hines said. “You send one to an apartment complex and the whole apartment complex finds out about it.”
In Yakima, “Our staff are at it right now,” said Anthony Peterson, interim CEO of the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of Washington. “Air conditioners are a hot commodity … We’ve been creative to try to maximize every type of store we can purchase them from.”
The group has distributed nearly 200 units so far in the area, according to state data.
By 2053, Yakima County could see 12 more days above 90 degrees and five more days above 100 each year, according to the report.
“We get all seasons,” Peterson said, “and most of the time it’s extreme.”
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