WASHINGTON - As the fire season heats up in the West, a Colorado congressman wants the Bush administration to consider appointing a national fire czar to oversee wildfire operations.
Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., who chairs the House Resources forests subcommittee, has suggested the government should name someone to oversee policies for managing wildfires.
A host of agencies within the Interior and Agriculture departments - including the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - handle wildfires.
"What I think the agencies need to do is figure out how they will unify their forces," McInnis said.
The congressman made the request in letters last week to Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. He plans to reiterate it Tuesday during a hearing of his subcommittee.
The hearing follows four deaths this month in the North Cascades' Thirty Mile Fire. Separately, an air tanker pilot in northern Idaho died while dropping fire retardant on a wildfire. The subcommittee is looking into the deaths, as well as barriers to implementing the National Fire Plan, passed by Congress last year.
The plan provided the departments with an extra $1.8 billion over 2000 funding to clean up from last year's blazes, which charred some 7 million acres. The money also was to go toward improving firefighting capabilities and thinning forests of dried wood and other fuels.
The Forest Service, part of the Agriculture Department, has not taken a position on the proposal for a fire czar. Norton's spokesman Mark Pfeifle said the secretary has asked her recently confirmed deputy, J. Steven Griles, to look at ways to improve coordination.
On a czar: "Anything that moves toward the goal of better firefighting is something we will look at," Pfeifle said.
In his letter, McInnis noted that the fire plan was supposed to be implemented by a Cabinet-level group or its equivalent.
"We have put a lot of money in there right now," McInnis said. "A fire czar may be the answer."