Man charged with starting Yosemite fire

  • In this Friday, July 25, 2014 photo, trees destroyed by 2013's Rim Fire, in the Stanislaus National Forest near Groveland, Calif. Nearly a year after the Rim Fire charred thousands of acres of forest in California's High Sierra, a debate rages over what to do with the dead trees, salvage the timber to pay for forest replanting and restoration or let nature take its course. Environmentalist say that the burned trees and new growth beneath them create vital habitat for dwindling bird such as spotted owls, and black-backed woodpeckers and other wildlife. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

GROVELAND — A California man was charged Thursday with starting the state's third-largest wildfire, a 2013 blaze that charred hundreds of square miles of land in Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest.

A grand jury returned a four-count indictment against Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, alleging he started a fire Aug. 17, 2013, and it spread beyond his control and turned into the massive Rim Fire. Federal prosecutors said temporary fire restrictions in place at the time prohibited fires.

Emerald, from the town of Columbia in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is also charged with lying to a federal agent by saying he did not set the fire. A call to his attorney, federal public defender Janet Bateman, was not immediately returned.

Authorities previously said the fire was started by an illegal fire set by a hunter but withheld the hunter's name pending further investigation.

The fire raged for two months across 400 square miles of land. It ranks as California's third-largest wildfire and the largest in the Sierra Nevada's recorded history. The costs of fighting it totaled more than $125 million.

"The Rim Fire was one of the largest in California history and caused tremendous economic and environmental harm," U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said in a written statement. "While those harms cannot be undone, today we have brought criminal charges relating to the cause of the fire."

The charges were the result of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service and the Tuolumne County district attorney's office, Wagner said.

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