FRESNO — A federal grand jury returned a four-count indictment on Thursday, charging Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, of Columbia, with starting a fire that eventually burned more than 250,000 acres, including large areas in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, according to United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner and Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore.
The Rim Fire, which burned for nine weeks, was the largest fire in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in recorded history, according to the US Forest Service.
The indictment charges that on Aug. 17, 2013, Emerald kindled a fire in the Stanislaus National Forest and allowed the fire to burn or spread beyond his control. At the time of the fire, temporary fire restrictions were in place that prohibited fires. In addition, Emerald is charged with lying to a federal agent when he said that he did not set the fire when he knew that he had set a fire without authority.
According to court documents, Emerald was rescued by helicopter from the extremely remote Clavey River Canyon area near the origin of the Rim Fire about an hour after the fire was reported. Emerald was carrying bow hunting equipment with him and advised authorities that he had been on a solo hunting trip.
U.S. Attorney Wagner stated: “The Rim Fire was one of the largest in California history. After an extensive investigation, today we have brought minimal charges relating to the cause of that fire.”
“The impacts of the Rim Fire on our public lands will continue for years to come,” said Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore. “This devastating fire caused risk to firefighters, citizens and private property and over 125 million dollars spent in suppression costs on this beautiful and popular landscape. We’re still dealing with hazardous trees and erosion.”
“The cooperative work of the criminal investigators from the U.S. Forest Service, Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office, and prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office that lead to the indictment is commendable,” said Scott Harris, U.S. Forest Service special agent in charge of the Pacific Southwest Region. “Through this investigative partnership and support from the community, the origin and cause of the massive Rim Fire and the person responsible for it were identified.”
This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service with assistance from the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office. Assistant United States Attorneys Kevin P. Rooney and Melanie L. Alsworth are prosecuting the case.
Emerald is scheduled to be arraigned on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 in federal court in Fresno. If convicted of setting timber afire or false statements to a government agency, Emerald 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. Any sentence, however, would be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables. The charges are only allegations; the defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.