By SCOTT SMITH
The Associated Press
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — A California man was charged Thursday with starting the state’s third-largest wildfire, a 2013 blaze that charred hundreds of square miles of land in Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest.
A grand jury returned a four-count indictment against Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, alleging he started a campfire Aug. 17, 2013, in an area where fires were prohibited, and it spread beyond his control and turned into the massive Rim Fire.
The fire raged for two months across 400 square miles of land, threatening thousands of structures, destroying 11 homes and costing more than $125 million to fight.
Investigators focused on Emerald, who was rescued by helicopter about an hour after the fire was reported, and almost immediately and repeatedly interviewed him over the course of the following several weeks while firefighters battled the blaze.
Investigators said Emerald at times acknowledged starting the fire and other times denied it.
Hunting for deer with a bow that day, he initially told investigators that he caused a rock slide that sparked the fire, according to a search warrant affidavit for Emerald’s house and other sites. He then allegedly suggested it was started by marijuana growers in the area.
After multiple interviews and a promise from investigators that they would keep his name out of the media for as long as they could, he acknowledged having a lighter, starting a fire and cooking a meal, according to the affidavit. He burned trash from his backpack, but some of the embers blew uphill and set the brush on fire, he allegedly told investigators in a handwritten statement with some misspellings.
“The terrain was almost vertical, so I physically couldn’t put it out,” he wrote.
He later recanted, but investigators said a man who drove Emerald to pick up his truck after the fire began said Emerald acknowledged setting a campfire that got out of control. A call to Emerald’s attorney, federal public defender Janet Bateman, was not immediately returned on Thursday.
Emerald, a resident of Columbia, a town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is also charged with lying to a federal agent. Prosecutors said no court date has been set for his arraignment.
Authorities previously said the wildfire was started by an illegal fire set by a hunter, but they withheld the hunter’s name pending further investigation. In the affidavit, investigators said Emerald was concerned about community retaliation if his name got out.
“The Rim Fire was one of the largest in California history and caused tremendous economic and environmental harm,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said in a written statement. “While those harms cannot be undone, today we have brought criminal charges relating to the cause of the fire.”
The charges were the result of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service and the Tuolumne County district attorney’s office, Wagner said.