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Hunter's campfire sparked massive Yosemite blaze, officials say

The Rim fire near Yosemite was started by a hunter who lost control of his campfire, investigators from the U.S. Forest Service and the Tuolumne County district attorney's office said Thursday.

The blaze, which erupted in the Stanislaus National Forest north of the Tuolumne River on Aug. 17, has burned 370 square miles of national forest and parkland and destroyed 111 buildings, including 11 homes and three businesses. The cost of fighting the fire reached $81 million Thursday.

“It was intended as a campfire, then for whatever reason, if it was put out improperly or left unattended … it got out of control,” said Forest Service spokesman Ray Mooney. “And it grew into the Rim fire.”

It is unclear what consequences, if any, the hunter will face, Mooney said. Authorities have not yet built enough of a case to justify an arrest, he said. The hunter’s campfire near Yosemite last month was illegal because of the time of year. Authorities released no details about the person.

With Thursday’s announcement, three of California’s four biggest fires have been determined to be accidental.

San Diego County’s Cedar fire, which killed 15 people and burned 426 square miles in 2003, was started by a hunter who sparked two signal fires when he feared he was stranded. That person was sentenced to nearly 1,000 hours of community service and ordered to pay restitution.

In 2007, a day laborer repairing a broken water pipe in Santa Barbara County sparked the Zaca fire, which burned 240,000 acres, or 375 square miles. He was cited for negligence with his work equipment and had to make a video on using power tools properly in dry areas.

While authorities this week were homing in on the fire’s origin, state firefighters were drawing back. About 1,500 firefighters from the state fire protection agency began returning to regular assignments Sunday, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. State prisoners were also being called back.

Over the last two weeks, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection crews have shored up heavy defenses along the Rim fire’s northern and western faces, from Pinecrest to Groveland. The threat to thousands of homes has been eliminated, Berlant said.

The Rim fire instead has spread to the only locale not blocked by bulldozed paths or granite barriers, or areas already burned out by crews: Yosemite. About a quarter of the blaze is in the national park, where crews Wednesday continued with burning operations in an attempt to cut off the fire’s path. Dry weather is expected to stoke the flames through the weekend as the wind — with gusts up to 25 mph — pushes the smoke north.

Despite the heat, the weather is generally beginning to work in firefighters’ favor, the Forest Service said. Though the conditions kept aircraft grounded overnight, preventing the Forest Service from updating the fire’s acreage Thursday, a wind shift allowed crews to burn vegetation ahead of the fire’s projected path. Officials said they could have the blaze fully contained in two weeks, though it might smolder for months.

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joseph.serna@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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