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Hunter charged with sparking massive Rim fire, state's third-largest

Bow hunter, 32, charged with starting campfire that became Rim fire near and in Yosemite National Park

A federal grand jury Thursday indicted a 32-year-old hunter with starting a campfire last year that spread to become the Rim fire, which scorched more than 250,000 acres in and around Yosemite National Park.

It became the third-largest blaze in state history.

Keith Matthew Emerald of Columbia, Calif., was charged with two felonies -- setting timber afire and lying to a government agent -- and two misdemeanors -- violating a fire restriction order and leaving a fire unattended and unextinguished -- the U.S. attorney's office announced Thursday. 

The felony counts each carry 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 Stainislaus National Forest and spread into Yosemite National Park. Ten people were injured and more than 100 structures were burned in addition to significant environmental damage during the nine-week firefight, whose cost topped $125 million.

“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. "While those harms cannot be undone, today we have brought criminal charges relating to the cause of that fire."

Prosecutors allege Emerald, who was on a bow-hunting trip, ignored the temporary fire restrictions that were in place and kindled a fire in the Stanislaus National Forest. At some point the fire spread beyond his control, they said.

Emerald was rescued by a helicopter crew about an hour after the fire was reported, prosecutors said.

Six days later, as the fire raged, federal investigators went to Emerald's home, according to an affidavit filed in support of a search warrant. There, according to the document, Emerald told investigators "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 grow operations in the area. He told investigators he thought marijuana growers had seen him hiking, and may have started the fire after that.

"This appeared to contradict his initial statement that Emerald caused a rock slide which then started the fire," the affidavit read. 

But investigators found no signs of a grow operation near the fire's origin, according to the affidavit, and no indication there was a rock slide. The conclusion, they said, was that a human had caused the blaze.

During a third interview in early September, Emerald told investigators he was afraid of retaliation from the community and asked if his name could be kept out of the media "until snow falls." (Authorities did not release his name until Thursday.)

In a signed affidavit, Emerald wrote that he used pine needles, twigs and a lighter to start a 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 phisically [sic] couldn't put it out."

Emerald had not been arrested and no court date had been set as of Thursday afternoon, the U.S. attorney's office said.

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