FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — While the flames still raced through California's Sierra Nevada last year, investigators zeroed in on a deer hunter they had rescued by helicopter an hour after the first report of the wildfire that would become the mountain range's largest in its recorded history.
They pressed the hunter, who said at first he caused a rockslide in a remote corner of the Stanislaus National Forest that sparked the blaze, and then blamed illegal marijuana growers, denying he even took a lighter on his hunting trip, according to a search warrant affidavit.
On Thursday — nearly a year later — a grand jury returned a four-count indictment against Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, alleging he started a campfire Aug. 17, 2013 in an area where fires were prohibited, and it spread beyond his control and turned into the massive Rim Fire.
The fire raged for two months across 400 square miles of land including part of Yosemite National Park, threatening thousands of structures, destroying 11 homes and costing more than $125 million to fight.
Investigators said Emerald gave inconsistent and changing versions of what happened during multiple interviews that began almost immediately after he was rescued and stretched over several weeks. Emerald was carrying bow hunting equipment when he was picked up from the Stanislaus National Forest, and rescuers and others who had contact with him initially told investigators he appeared not to understand the gravity of the situation and showed little remorse or interest in the dangerous rescue that had just occurred or the status of the fire, according to the affidavit.
A call to Emerald's attorney, federal public defender Janet Bateman, was not immediately returned.
After multiple interviews and a promise from investigators that they would keep his name out of the media for as long as they could, he acknowledged having a lighter, starting a fire and cooking a meal, according to the affidavit. He burned trash from his backpack, but some of the embers blew uphill and set the brush on fire, he allegedly told investigators in a handwritten statement.
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