Austen Thibault, The Union Democrat

The indictment of a Tuolumne County man accused of starting the biggest wildfire in Sierra Nevada history has shocked people who know him.

Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, of Columbia, was indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury in Fresno. He is accused of starting last year's massive Rim Fire, which burned more than 257,000 acres, destroyed 11 homes and cost more than $125 million to fight.

Officials say Emerald started an illegal campfire in the Clavey River canyon, let it escape and then lied about his role in the incident.

Emerald has not been arrested but is expected in court this week.

Emerald graduated from Sonora High School in 2000, a young baseball star. His coach, Steve Lee, still teaches at Sonora High.

"Wow. That's too bad. That'spretty shocking that he's been indicted for that mess," Lee said Friday.

Lee described him as a calm, respectful kid who was an excellent athlete.

"He was extremely coachable, which means that he listened, he worked hard," Lee said. "He wasn't high strung. He was just a pleasure to have on the team and a fun guy to have around."

Lee, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer, said even though the fire was illegal, it sounded like it was a bad choice with no criminal intent.

For the complete story, see the Aug. 11 edition of The Union Democrat.

Reporter Alex MacLean contributed to this report.

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