A federal grand jury Thursday indicted a 32-year-old bow hunter suspected of starting the campfire that sparked last year's Rim fire, the third-largest blaze in recorded state history, which scorched more than 250,000 acres in and around Yosemite National Park.
Keith Matthew Emerald of the Sierra foothills town of Columbia, Calif., was charged with two felonies: setting timber afire and lying to a government agency, the U.S. Attorney's Office said. He also was charged with two misdemeanors: violating a fire restriction order, and leaving a fire unattended and unextinguished.
Each of the felony counts carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, prosecutors said, and the misdemeanor counts a maximum of six months each.
The Rim fire began Aug. 17, 2013, in a remote area of the Stanislaus National Forest, devouring chaparral and oak as it chewed through the western border of Yosemite. Ten people were injured and more than 100 structures destroyed during the nine weeks that the blaze burned. Officials said the firefight alone cost more than $125 million; the total damage was estimated at hundreds of millions more.
The fire also had a devastating environmental effect that biologists said probably transformed the forest for decades to come.
"The Rim fire was one of the largest in California history and caused tremendous economic and environmental harm," U.S. Atty. Benjamin B. Wagner said in a statement Thursday. "While those harms cannot be undone, today we have brought criminal charges relating to the cause of that fire."
Prosecutors allege that Emerald, who was on a deer-hunting trip, ignored the temporary restrictions that were in place for the national forest and kindled a fire that spread beyond his control.
Emerald was rescued by a helicopter crew about an hour after the fire was reported, prosecutors said.
Six days later, as the fire raged, U.S. Forest Service investigators went to Emerald's home in Tuolumne County, according to an affidavit filed in support of a search warrant. There, according to the document, Emerald told investigators that "he caused a rock slide that he believed ignited the Rim fire."
"Emerald said as the boulder rolled downslope, he could hear it striking other rocks and smelled a 'rotten egg' type odor that he thought was 'sulfur,' " investigators wrote. "Emerald told us he continued to walk along the hillside for approximately five to ten minutes when he smelled smoke."
But during a later interview, investigators said, Emerald told them "he felt the fire could have been caused by marijuana growers," noting he had seen growing operations in the area before. He told investigators he thought marijuana growers had seen him hiking, "thought he was law enforcement" and may have started the fire after that.
But investigators found no signs of a marijuana operation near the fire's origin, according to the affidavit, and no indication that there was a rock slide. The conclusion, they said, was that a person caused the blaze.
During a third interview in early September, officials said, Emerald admitted that he was afraid of retaliation from the community and asked investigators if his name could be kept out of the media "until snow falls." (Authorities announced in early September that the fire was sparked by a hunter's illegal campfire, but did not release Emerald's name until Thursday.)
In a signed affidavit, Emerald wrote that he used pine needles, twigs and a lighter to start his campfire.
"After cooking a meal and burning the rest of my trash, some embers were blown up the hill and caught the brush on fire," he wrote. "The terrain was almost vertical, so I ... couldn't put it out."
As of Thursday, Emerald had not been arrested and no court date had been set, the U.S. attorney's office said.