Update 8/12/2014: Emerald entered a not-guilty plea to the charges in the indictment.
A federal grand jury charged Keith Emerald of Tuolumne County on Thursday with starting the Rim Fire, a wildfire that began in August 2013 and burned more than 250,000 acres in California.
According to his indictment, Emerald, 32, is charged with starting an illegal fire in the Stanislaus National Forest on August 17 last year and letting it spread beyond his control. The nine-week blaze that followed was the third largest in California history and resulted in the evacuation of the Cal Alumni Association’s Lair of the Golden Bear camp.
Aside from felony charges of setting timber afire and giving false statements to a government agency, Emerald was charged with the misdemeanors of leaving a fire unattended and unextinguished and violating a fire restriction order.
Emerald was rescued by helicopter near the fire’s origin about an hour after it was reported, according to a press release from the United States Attorneys’ Office. According to an affidavit in support of a search warrant, Emerald initially told investigators that he had been bowhunting for deer when he caused a rockslide that may have started the Rim Fire.
Emerald later told an investigator that the fire could have been caused by marijuana growers, according to the affidavit. But investigators ultimately ruled out both a rockslide and “marijuana cultivation activities” as possible fire causes.
After investigators pointed out inconsistencies in his previous statements, Emerald admitted to using a lighter to start a campfire, according to the affidavit.
“After cooking a meal and burning the rest of my trash, some embers were blown up the hill and caught the brush on fire,” Emerald said in an affidavit statement. “I physically couldn’t put it out.”
According to John Heil, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region, economic losses due to the fire are estimated at $1.8 billion. The fire destroyed 112 properties and also affected the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which supplies water to the San Francisco Bay Area.
“This devastating fire caused risk to firefighters, citizens and private property, and over 125 million dollars were spent in fire suppression costs on this beautiful and popular landscape,” said USFS Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore in the press release. “We’re still dealing with hazardous trees and erosion.”
According to Lauren Horwood, spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento, Emerald had not been taken into custody as of Friday. His court date is expected to be “soon” in a federal court in Fresno, California.
If convicted of setting timber afire or giving false statements to a government agency, Emerald faces a maximum statutory penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. If convicted of the other two counts, he faces a maximum of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.