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Indictment: man lied, then confessed to starting Rim Fire

A Tuolumne County man has been indicted by a federal grand jury of starting the massive Rim Fire -- the third largest wildfire in state history.
New information is being released about the man indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday of starting the massive Rim Fire, the third largest wildfire in state history.

An affidavit is signed by Keith Emerald. In it the 32-year-old man admits to ignoring fire restrictions and making a camp fire that ultimately blew out of control and became the 250,000-acre Rim Fire. But, investigators say he lied to them before confessing, and just two weeks after signing the confession he again changed his story.

At Keith Emerald's home in the rural Tuolumne County town of Columbia, Action News met a man hanging "private property" notices on the garage. We asked if he was Emerald and were told to leave.

Emerald is facing two federal misdemeanor and two federal felony charges for starting the most destructive wildfire in Sierra Nevada history last August. Federal court documents say that same day while on a hunting trip Emerald ignored fire restrictions, and dangerous fire conditions, and started a camp fire that grew out of control.

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Court Document: Keith Emerald Indictment (PDF)
Court Document: Keith Emerald Search Warrant (PDF)
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In the weeks that followed, as crews risked their lives on the fire lines, investigators searched Emerald's two-story home in Columbia. They also went through his phone, computers and pickup truck.

The documents claim in his first interview Emerald admitted to being part of the cause because he triggered a rock slide that set off sparks in the brush. He contradicts himself later in the paperwork. Investigators say he then blamed marijuana growers in the area for starting the wildfire. Investigators say their evidence disproved all of that.

Then another twist in the case came from Emerald. According to a signed affidavit, he confessed to starting the camp fire, which sent embers into the brush. But, six days later Emerald told an investigator he was pressured to confess. He officially recanted his story two weeks after that.

The flames and smoke burned intensely for two months. Tourists from all over the world canceled trips to the area. The Rim Fire devastated many businesses that rely on tourism dollars in the summer months. And as Emerald told investigators he expected many are angry.

"I just think he's an idiot," said Scelestia Cook, owner of Yosemite Rose Bed and Breakfast. "I mean who would light a fire in the middle of August, in a crispy little river canyon. It's complete stupidity."

Emerald has a previous charge for camping in a restricted part of Yosemite. The documents lay out two other interesting points. Emerald said he didn't fear criminal charges, but he did not want his name made public. He worried along with that would come community anger and backlash.

Also, one of his friends told investigators Emerald sent him video of the fire from the day it started. But it's not clear yet if that video exists.

Emerald has not been arrested. Once a court date is set he will face a federal judge in Downtown Fresno.
Related Topics:
news rim fire fire forest fire Yosemite National Park
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