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October 23, 2014

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Man charged with starting massive California wildfire

Image

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

This Friday, July 25, 2014, photo shows trees destroyed by 2013’s Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest near Groveland, Calif.

GROVELAND, Calif. — 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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