Austen Thibault, The Union Democrat

A Columbia man was indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday for allegedly starting last year's Rim Fire, which scorched 400 square-miles and went down as the Sierra's largest wildfire in recorded history.

Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, faces felony charges of setting timber afire and lying to federal investigators, and misdemeanor charges of leaving a fire unattended and violating a fire restriction put in place because of high-fire dangers.

If convicted, he could face five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each felony. Leaving a fire unattended and violating a fire restriction each carry a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The indictment alleges that on Aug. 17, 2013, Emerald kindled a fire in the Stanislaus National Forest and allowed the fire to spread beyond his control.

Emerald, who said he was bowhunting for deer in the steep Clavey River canyon, was identified as a suspect not long after he was rescued by a Cal Fire helicopter crew from the extremely remote area where the fire originated. That was about an hour after the fire was discovered that afternoon.

He said he waited for aircraft that he knew would respond to the fire, according to a search warrant affidavit used later to search Emerald's house and possessions.

The affidavit described his interaction with the chopper crew: "Emerald's mental state was described as 'distant,' 'nervous' and he was mostly quiet and stayed to himself. Emerald did not appear to understand the gravity of this situation and showed little remorse or interest in the dangerous rescue that had just occurred, or the status of the fire, which was growing in size a short distance away."

After Emerald was flown to safety, he was given a ride to his father's house in Coulterville by a fire crewman.

Investigators determined no one else was in the fire origin area at the time.

Investigators questioned Emerald at his home six days later. According to the affidavit, he told investigators that he grabbed a boulder for support while walking about 200 yards above the river and dislodged it. He said it rolled down, striking other rocks, which may have been an ignition source. He said he kept walking, but soon smelled smoke, walked to the river for a clearer view and saw a wildfire spreading up the ridge.

During follow-up questioning a week later, on Aug. 30, the affidavit said, Emerald changed his story about the fire's origin, telling investigators he believed marijuana growers in the area may have started the fire. He said the growers might've seen him on his trip and mistaken him for law enforcement.

Emerald voluntarily accompanied investigators to an area where the alleged marijuana grow was located, but no plants were found. Along the way, he made some "spontaneous" statements, according to the affidavit. Among them, he said he hoped the fire was driving deer toward the Highway 108 corridor, wondered aloud how much money bulldozer operators were making cutting fire lines, and said he took note of the smoke cloud while he had been out golfing.

After several subsequent interviews, "It became apparent … that Emerald wanted to tell them how the fire started, but was fearful of consequences from the local community," the affidavit said.

Emerald didn't fear criminal charges, he just "didn't want his name in the paper."

So an investigator drafted an agreement to do "everything in his power" to keep Emerald's name from going public at least up to wintertime.

Emerald told investigators on Sept. 3 that he started a campfire along the riverbank. He said he gathered pine needles and twigs and lit them with a lighter on a sandy beach. He said he cooked beans and buried the can before burning some trash that was in his backpack.

Embers blew into the surrounding vegetation, which caught fire and spread quickly up a steep slope he could not reach, he said.

Emerald wrote that description and signed the statement to prosecutors.

Investigators found no evidence of a campfire along the river, nor anything supporting the rockslide or marijuana grow explanations.

For the complete story, see the Aug. 8 edition of The Union Democrat.