Today a Federal Grand Jury indicted 32-year-old Keith Matthew Emerald for starting the Rim Fire that eventually burned 257,000 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. He was charged with two felonies, “Timber set afire” and “False statement to a government agency”, plus two misdemeanors, “Fire left unattended and unextinguished” and “Violating a fire restriction order”.
The fire became the third largest in California recorded history.
According to court documents, Mr. Emerald was rescued by a CAL FIRE helicopter from the extremely remote Clavey River Canyon area of the Stanislaus National Forest near the origin of the Rim Fire about an hour after the fire was reported. He was carrying bow hunting equipment with him and advised authorities that he had been on a solo hunting trip.
The CAL FIRE crew turned Mr. Emerald over to a U.S. Forest Service Fire Prevention Technician, who was not a law enforcement officer. He was later given a ride out of the forest by a government employee, but no one asked him for any identification. Investigators believe they were able to overcome that oversight. Later they applied for a search warrant for Mr. Emerald’s house and his vehicle, expecting to possibly find evidence in his computer, cell phone, backpack he was carrying that day, or elsewhere on the premises. The documents we reviewed did not reveal the results of the search.
During the extensive investigation and multiple interviews with Mr. Emerald, he told investigators several different versions of how the fire started, including:
- Illegal pot growers;
- He inadvertently started a rock slide, causing rocks to collide, creating sparks, which started the fire;
- He said he started a campfire and burned some trash in it. The burning trash blew into vegetation, starting the fire which escaped.
Mr. Emerald later recanted the campfire story.
Investigators ruled out all possible fire causes other than “incendiary/intentional fire start by human”, the court documents revealed.
Mr. Emerald is expected to appear soon in the federal court in Fresno. If convicted of setting timber afire or of making false statements to a government agency, he faces a maximum statutory penalty of five years in 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.