Tuolumne County, CA — A federal indictment alleges that a Columbia resident kindled a fire in the Stanislaus National Forest, and allowed it to spread beyond his control.
At the time of the fire on August 17th, fire restrictions were in place in the Stanislaus National Forest. Keith Emerald, 32, was rescued by helicopter from the Clavey River Canyon, approximately an hour after the fire started.
U.S. Attorney’s Office Spokesperson Lauren Horwood would not comment on why the investigation took nearly a year, other than to say it was “extensive.”
Court documents claim that Emerald initially admitted to causing the fire, but then later denied it.
The affidavit notes that investigators first sat down and interviewed Emerald, at length, on August 23, 2013. The report notes that Emerald initially said he believed a rockslide started the fire.
In a later interview on August 30, investigators spoke with Emerald near the site of the fire’s origin. Emerald said on the day the fire started he had been dressed in camouflage and believed that marijuana growers spotted him, and they may have thought he was law enforcement. Emerald indicated to investigators that he thought marijuana growers could have started the fire.
Court documents show on September 3rd, during an interview, Emerald allegedly admitted to accidentally starting the fire while cooking soup. Winds blew embers uphill, and he was not able to control it. Emerald was concerned about his name getting out in the media. Officials said that it would not be released until a later date, around winter.
In a follow up discussion days later, Emerald allegedly stated he only admitted to starting the fire because of pressure placed on him by investigators.
The ongoing investigation continued over the course of the next year. A search warrant was carried out at his vehicle and residence, and evidence was analyzed. This morning federal officials stated they have probable cause to believe that Emerald was responsible.
He is expected to appear soon in federal court in Fresno. It is noted that Emerald is innocent until proven guilty.