Flames from Rim Fire consume trees on Aug. 25, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Flames from Rim Fire consume trees on Aug. 25, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A 32-year-old man from the Tuolumne County town of Columbia has been charged by a federal grand jury with starting the devastating Rim Fire. Federal prosecutors say that Keith Matthew Emerald faces a four-count indictment.

The August 2013 conflagration — the third largest in California history — lasted for nine weeks and burned more than 250,000 acres, including large section of Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest. It was the biggest fire ever in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

According to the indictment, Emerald kindled a fire on Aug. 17, 2013 in the Stanislaus National Forest and let it spread beyond his control, despite temporary fire restrictions that banned fires. He is also charged with lying to a federal agent by saying he did not start the fire.

Court documents indicate that Emerald was rescued by helicopter from the Clavey River canyon part of the Stanislaus National Forest — near the place where the Rim Fire originated — about an hour after the fire was reported. According to a press release, “Emerald was carrying bow hunting equipment with him and advised authorities that he had been on a solo hunting trip.”

U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner, who announced the indictment jointly with U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore, stated: “The Rim Fire was one of the largest in California history and caused tremendous economic and environmental harm. While those harms cannot be undone, today we have brought criminal charges relating to the cause of that fire. I want to commend the Forest Service agents for their diligent and extensive investigation.”

Moore added: “The impacts of the Rim Fire on our public lands will continue for years to come. This devastating fire caused risk to firefighters, citizens and private property, and over $125 million were spent in fire suppression costs on this beautiful and popular landscape. We’re still dealing with hazardous trees and erosion.”

RIm Fire Graphic (David Pierce/KQED)
RIm Fire Graphic (David Pierce/KQED)

Emerald, who is expected to appear in federal court in Fresno soon, could face a $250,000 fine and a maximum statutory penalty of five years in prison if he’s convicted of setting timber afire or for false statements made to a government agency. The two other counts involve leaving a fire unattended and violating a fire restriction order. Each count has a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

A sentence would be at the discretion of the court.

Scott Harris, U.S. Forest Service special agent in charge of the Pacific Southwest Region, said: “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 led to the indictment is commendable. Through this investigative partnership and support from the community, we have discovered the origin, cause and identified a suspect for the massive Rim Fire.”

Read the indictment

Tuolumne County Resident Indicted for Starting Rim Fire in Yosemite 7 August,2014Patricia Yollin

  • Naturefreunde

    It is about time. Just like the Cedar Fire in San Diego the fire was started by a hunter who didn’t take proper precautions and had no business being in the wilderness. My son and I happened to be up the Cherry Creek drainage during the Rim Fire. We had a great trip but had to pull a late night 12 mile hike out,when the winds and temperatures were down to save our van and get out via Shingle Springs Trailhead. At 3:30 am the sleeping Cal Fire personnel, who were sleeping on Cherry Creek Road, after clearing the road for 48 hours, were a little surprised to see us driving across Cherry Lake. The Pyrocumulus cloud formations caused by the fire were captivating to watch to say the least. Luckily our route put us a couple clicks out of the prevailing wind, so we had clear skies. The smoke and the subsequent fire created clouds would ramp up around 1030 am and continue until the weather cooled down in the early evening.

    • LindaE

      Glad you were able to get out safely. It was a disastrous experience for many others who lost their homes, their animals and their businesses.

  • Jo Anne Fortuna Casey

    Keith Emerald, you have effected more lives than you will ever know!!
    Because of you – the Strawberry Music Festival is no longer held at Camp Mather. I had gotten together there with my Strawberry family ( numbering in the thousands) for 58 festivals – twice a year. It was in a beautiful place where everything was well with the world. My working vacation that my whole live evolved around twice a year. My relief from the pain of losing my husband of 32 years, my reprieve from working at a prison for 20 years. My time to relax, feel safe and enjoy my favorite music, friends, nature, exercise (dancing and walking) and Food!!! Everything ALL in one place.
    And I got to work for my ticket. It is all gone now, thanks to YOU.
    Not to mention, campgrounds burnt and closed, cattle and ranches destroyed,

    • Nick

      So sorry for your loss! I completely understand, as I had my life changed too by this fire. There was such a huge amount of destruction from this fire that no amount of punishment could be exacted upon this man to compensate for the losses.

  • laytonian

    Keith Emerald, you chicken-little liar! Great big man out hunting deer to prove his testosterone level BUT lies several times when talking to investigators.
    YOU had to be rescued from that fire and you still lied? Disgusting. I don’t know why investigators agreed to keep your name out of the news for so long. They should have put up giant billboards with your sorry face on them.

  • Barbara Chase

    I am so ANGRY at the STUPIDITY of this man, KEITH MATTHEW EMERALD, because of all the damage done to people, including their lost homes, livestock, and most likely, their livelihoods, not to mention their psyches!! I’m also enraged because his callous act of starting a fire where he knew they were prohibited, because HE was hungry, caused thousands of animals their lives. Those that lived are permanently displaced and confused! What happened to a hunter, not only being STUPID, but that came ill equipped, as far as supplies that are used when hiking into a fire protected area?? Oh, something like Beef Jerky!! The fact that he BROKE the law, whether or not he meant the fire to become out of control, should NOT be of reference here, because he DID BREAK THE LAW regardless, so I hope that no one will listen to his pitiful pleas of innocence of wrongdoing!! Idiots, and selfish people that think that the law pertains NOT to them, need to learn a dire lesson! He NEEDS to be held responsible, but he also NEEDS to OWN the circumstances that evolved because of the fact that he selfishly, and wilfully BROKE THE LAW! Nature will not recover to it’s once brilliant and breathtaking beauty, in his LIFETIME! He is an idiotic and STUPID jerk! BTW..if he was hunting deer, and wanted to bring what he MURDERED, out of the wilderness, how was he equipped to do that?? Oooh, right! He wasn’t..so I’m sure that he would have just left a wounded, or dying, or dead animal behind, with the pathetic thrill that he did what he came to do, yeah?? I absolutely abhor his kind of little man..killing just because he can..for the thrill of it!! Aaahhhhhh!!!!


Patricia Yollin

Pat Yollin has written about lots of stuff, including organ transplants, wayward penguins at the San Francisco Zoo, the comeback of the cream puff, New York on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, a Slow Food gathering in Italy, and the microcredit movement in Northern California. Among her favorite stories: an interview with George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch that broke the story about his plan to build a cultural museum, and a pirate Trader Joe’s operation in Vancouver that prompted the grocery chain to sue — and lose. She joined KQED in 2013 and was previously a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner and the Hayward Daily Review.

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