Hunter Charged with Starting Rim Fire

The third largest in California's history

Firefighters work to suppress the Rim Fire, which burned for two months starting in August 2013. (Mike McMillan/USFS)

The 2013 Rim Fire, which burned through more than 250,000 acres near the western border of Yosemite National Park, allegedly began as a small fire that Keith Matthew Emerald started while hunting deer. The 32-year-old California resident has been charged on four counts with starting the third-largest fire in California's history, including lying to a federal agent and ignoring fire restrictions at the time.

Emerald had been rescued from a remote area of the Stanislaus National Forest about an hour after the fire was first reported to authorities. Investigators interviewed him multiple times and say that he alternated between admitting to and denying starting the fire—one time, he suggested that marijuana growers in the area may have started it.

However, in a signed affidavit, Emerald wrote that he'd started a campfire while bow-hunting deer. "After cooking a meal and burning the rest of my trash, some embers were blown up the hill and caught the brush on fire. The terrain was almost vertical, so I … couldn't put it out." It grew to a blaze that raged for two months and cost $125 million to fight.

This news comes at the same time as an announcement from the U.S. Forest Service that, for the seventh time in 12 years, we're likely to use up our annual firefighting budget by the end of August. That means the USFS will have to dip into funds reserved for reducing the risk of fires. Lawmakers increasingly agree that our funding model for fighting fires is broken. Because it's often not a person responsible for starting these fires, agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack told the Associated Press that large blazes must be treated like other natural disasters.

As for Emerald, there's no court date yet for his arraignment. Suspects charged with starting fires have received the death penalty before, but since no one died in the Rim Fire and what Emerald did is not considered arson, his penalty will be nowhere near as harsh. Still, "The Rim Fire … caused tremendous economic and environmental harm," U.S. attorney Benjamin Wagner said. When he does go to court, Emerald faces a maximum five years in prison and $250,000 fine.

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