Man Pleads Not Guilty to 2013 California Wildfire

By SCOTT SMITH | August 14, 2014

A Northern California man accused of starting one of the state’s largest wildfires when he lost control of his campfire last year can leave jail while the criminal case plays out in court, a federal judge said Tuesday.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge Gary Austin said Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, can post a $60,000 property bond if he wants to go free. The judge also set a list of conditions, including one that prohibits Emerald from lighting any campfires.

“He can be in the mountains,” Austin said in Emerald’s arraignment in a Fresno courtroom. “But he can light no campfires.”

Last week, a federal grand jury indicted Emerald on four counts accusing him of causing the 2013 wildfire that burned 400 square miles in Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest. The fire became the Sierra Nevada’s largest in recorded history.

Emerald pleaded not guilty. His federal public defender Janet Bateman objected to his prohibition from campfires, saying Emerald is not guilty of starting the fire. Austin said a jury will decide that.

Emerald was hunting for deer with a bow on Aug. 17, 2013, when he was rescued by helicopter near the origin of the fire. Early in the investigation, he acknowledged he started a fire to cook a meal and burned trash from his backpack, according to a search warrant affidavit. Emerald said he lost control of the fire that burned for more than two months, destroying 11 homes and costing more than $125 million to fight.

Investigators said Emerald, a resident of the foothill community of Columbia, gave inconsistent and changing versions of what happened during multiple interviews that began almost immediately after he was rescued.

Emerald later denied he started the fire, saying a rockslide he caused sparked the fire, and then he blamed illegal marijuana growers.

Emerald turned himself in to authorities Tuesday morning, and appeared at the afternoon court hearing wearing a white T-shirt, blue jeans and shackles. His charges include starting a campfire despite restrictions and lying to a federal agent. He could face up to five years in prison if he’s convicted.

Emerald is due back in court Oct. 14.

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