Federal prosecutors on Thursday announced that they have charged a 32-year-old Columbia man with starting the Rim fire, which grew to consume more than 250,000 acres last year.
A federal grand jury returned a four-count indictment charging Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, with starting the fire, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento.
Authorities say that on Aug. 17, Emerald kindled a fire in the Stanislaus National Forest and allowed it to spread beyond his control. At the time, temporary restrictions were in place that prohibited fires. In addition, Emerald is charged with lying to a federal agent when he said he did not set the fire.
Court documents that were filed last year and unsealed Thursday reveal details of the case. Investigators say Emerald admitted to starting a campfire that got out of control. But the defendant later recanted his confession, claiming investigators pressured him into admitting he started the wildfire.
Emerald has not been arrested but rather was given notice to appear in court, said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It is not clear when he will be arraigned, but when that happens it will be in federal court in Fresno.
Attempts by The Modesto Bee to reach Emerald or his family were not successful Thursday afternoon.
The impacts of the Rim fire on public lands will continue for years to come, said Randy Moore, Pacific Southwest regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service.
“This devastating fire caused risk to firefighters, citizens and private property, and over $125 million were spent in fire suppression costs on this beautiful and popular landscape,” Moore said in a news release. “We’re still dealing with hazardous trees and erosion.”
The fire burned with varying intensity across parts of the forest, Yosemite National Park and private land. It took out mature timber, young plantations from past blazes, brushy areas and campsites. The indictment came 10 days short of the first anniversary of the fire’s start.
“What surprises me still is how long it took for this whole process to take place,” said Melinda Fleming, executive director of the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment. “There are a lot of unanswered questions, and hopefully we will get some better answers.”
This group long has supported logging as a way to reduce dense wildfire fuel, and it criticized the Forest Service’s initial response to the Rim fire. Fleming added that if restitution is sought, Emerald “does not have the wherewithal to take care of that kind of financial thing.”
About an hour after the fire was reported, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection helicopter crew rescued Emerald from the extremely remote Clavey River Canyon area of the Stanislaus National Forest near the origin of the Rim fire, according to a search warrant affidavit written by Special Agent Eric Schultz of the U.S. Forest Service.
Emerald was carrying bow hunting equipment with him and told the helicopter crew that he had been on a solo deer hunting trip. The Cal Fire crew told investigators that they dropped off the unidentified “bow hunter” with a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement official.
But the investigators learned that the helicopter crew left Emerald with a U.S. Forest Service fire prevention technician, not a law enforcement official. The fire prevention technician then drove Emerald to his father’s Coulterville home.
The helicopter crew told investigators that they had picked up Emerald from a flat rock directly across the river from the apparent origin of the fire. Emerald told the crew that he had caused a rock slide that sparked the fire, according to Schultz.
On Aug. 23, Schultz and another investigator questioned Emerald for about 30 minutes at his Columbia home on Marble Quarry Road. Emerald then told the investigators that he had caused a rock slide that sparked the wildfire, according to Schultz.
Emerald said he knew aircraft would respond to the fire and waited nearby for a crew to spot him in the canyon and pick him up. Schultz wrote that the defendant made it a point to say he did not take a lighter or matches on his hunting trip because of the “extreme fire conditions in the forest at that time.”
On Aug. 30, Emerald told an investigator that he felt that marijuana growers might have started a fire below his hiking location near the river. A few days later, Emerald disputed that he had claimed a rock slide caused the fire. He explained to investigators that he smelled smoke shortly after seeing the rock slide.
Schultz wrote in an affidavit that investigators ruled out marijuana growing or a rock slide sparking the wildfire. He said specific conditions did not exist in the area to possibly start a fire with a sparking rock. Investigators also did not find evidence of a marijuana-growing operation.
Emerald then told investigators he did not have a campfire on his hunting trip, and he probably had a lighter with him in his backpack, according to Schultz. The investigators told him that prosecutors would criminally charge him if he continued with his account that was contradicted by the facts uncovered by the investigation. They also told him that criminal charges or severe civil penalties would be unlikely for someone who accidentally started the fire.
Schultz wrote that Emerald was afraid of retaliation from people in his small town, so the investigators agreed to delay publicly releasing his name until the winter. Emerald wanted his name “kept out of the paper,” according to the affidavit.
An agreement to keep the case open until the first snowfall was added to a written statement from Emerald in which he admitted to starting a campfire. Emerald admitted to burning some trash from his backpack, which he wrote had spread embers to surrounding vegetation that caught fire. A gusty wind blew the fire uphill on a steep slope; therefore, he was unable to put out the blaze, according to the statement.
A few days later, Emerald recanted his confession, claiming he was pressured by the U.S. Forest Service agents, according to Schultz.
Tanden Olsen, a friend of Emerald’s, told investigators that Emerald called him on the day the wildfire started, asking him to pick him up at his father’s Coulterville home so he could retrieve his pickup on Jawbone Ridge. Emerald initially told Olsen the fire was caused by a rock slide.
Olsen told Emerald he didn’t believe him, and then Emerald told him “he had a campfire and it got out of control,” according to Schultz. Olsen told investigators that Emerald told him not to say anything.
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner on Thursday commended the U.S. Forest Service agents for their diligent and extensive investigation.
“The Rim fire was one of the largest in California history and caused tremendous economic and environmental harm,” Wagner said in the news release. “While those harms cannot be undone, today we have brought criminal charges relating to the cause of that fire.”
If convicted, Emerald faces up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine for each count. Leaving a fire unattended and violating a fire restriction order each carry a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.