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Hunter pleads not guilty to starting massive California wildfire

By Jennifer Chaussee

(Reuters) - A California hunter pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to charges that he started a massive wildfire on the edge of Yosemite National Park last summer after building an illegal campfire.

Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, entered his plea in U.S. District Court in Fresno almost exactly a year after prosecutors say he sparked the Rim Fire, which scorched 260,000 acres on public and private land in and near the park.

Emerald, who lives near the area burned by the fire, is charged with setting timber afire, leaving a fire unattended, violating campfire restrictions and giving a false statement to a government agency. He is expected to be released from custody after his $60,000 bail is posted.

Federal prosecutors say Emerald built a fire in the remote dry brush of Stanislaus National Forest, where temporary campfire restrictions were in effect because of drought, while on a bow-and-arrow hunting trip last August.

Embers from the campfire reached parched branches overhead and sparked the devastating wildfire named after the Rim of the World lookout spot nearby.

The flames scorched 402 square miles, destroyed nearly 100 structures and cost more than $127 million.

"The Rim Fire was one of the largest in California history and caused tremendous economic and environmental harm," said Scott Harris, a U.S. Forest Service special agent in charge of the area where the Rim Fire took place. "While those harms cannot be undone, today we have brought criminal charges relating to the cause of that fire."

Rescuers airlifted Emerald from the burning forest about an hour after the wildfire began, according to court documents. Emerald initially told investigators that he did not set fire to anything during his trip.

Federal prosecutors say that Emerald lit a campfire and then lied about it to investigators. If convicted of all four counts, he faces a maximum sentence of six years in prison and $510,000 in fines. He is scheduled to appear in court again on Oct. 14.

Emerald's attorneys were not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Jennifer Chaussee from San Francisco; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Eric Walsh)

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