Is Global Warming Fueling Western Wildfires?

June 21, 2006 — -- This year, wildfires have already burned more than 3 million acres -- more than three times the average at this time of year.

Many scientists say that these fires fit exactly into the pattern predicted for global warming and that it's likely to get, on average, even drier and hotter.

Over the last month, ABC News has traveled through the San Bernardino Mountains, Western Sierras, and Rockies to find out what scientists and firefighters make of the new flames they must now face.

The size and ferocity of these wildfires plaguing the West right now -- many growing in size every hour -- astonishes even experienced fire chiefs like Mat Fratus of the San Bernardino City Fire Department.

"I had talked to people who had been in the fire service their entire career, and not only this fire, but fires in preceding years, because of the drought, because of the fuel conditions, they produced fire behavior, flame links, intensities that we had never really experienced before," Fratus said.

"And everything we had to throw at it, we did. And it just seemed to burn right through us," Fratus said.

The damage the fires have caused in San Bernardino has been difficult for Fratus, whose family has lived in the area for five generations.

"I was born and raised in this area, and to see this entire area burn in my -- in my lifetime -- I've never seen a fire come through here of anything of that magnitude," he said.

Today's wildfires are part of a worsening pattern most everywhere.

Since 1970, the number of major wildfires has soared not only in North America but around the world.

Scientists report that global warming means mountains lose winter snowpack weeks ahead of time, from the Himalayas to California Sierras.

"The snow is melting earlier in the year at very regular intervals now, and we're getting much longer fire seasons. It dries out much more than before," said Anthony Westerling, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The economic cost of these new fires is many billions of dollars. No one knows exactly how much, except that the rapid new development seems bound to make it much worse.

"Some of our fastest growing areas are going to have the biggest increases in fire frequency in the future driven by temperature increases from climate change," Westerling said.

Fratus says he believes that climate change is here to stay. He says he also worries about how all the carbon from the fires will contribute to global warming.

"It appears that global warming is an issue that is not going to subside or go away anytime soon," he said. "What we thought was the anomaly will soon become the rule."