Investigators determined that a hunter’s illegal blaze started California’s Rim fire, which has burned nearly 371 square miles and is one of the largest wildfires in California history.
Located in and around Yosemite National Park, the fire is now more than 80 percent contained. Officials said the massive conflagration cost $81 million to fight and destroyed 111 structures, including 11 homes. Thousands of firefighters battled the flames during the past month, and at one point, the fire threatened more than 4,000 structures.
A team of 50 scientists, more than twice the typical number deployed, are busy assessing the damage. They hope to have a preliminary report ready in two weeks so remediation can start before the first fall storms, said Alex Janicki, the Stanislaus National Forest BAER response coordinator.
On Thursday, officials announced the cause of the fire, which started Aug. 17. The hunter set his illegal blaze in a remote canyon in the Stanislaus National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service had recently banned fires at undeveloped campsites due to the high fire danger in the area. Police have not yet arrested anyone, and investigators are withholding the hunter’s name pending further investigation.
On Friday, Kent Delbon, the lead investigator, would not characterize what kind of fire the hunter had set or how they identified the suspect: “I can say some really good detective work out there made this thing happen.”
Delbon said the Forest Service announced the cause of the fire before being able to release details in order to silence rumors that an illegal marijuana garden ignited the blaze. Fire Chief Todd McNeal of the Twain Harte Fire Department kindled the speculation in an Aug. 23 briefing when he said the absence of lightning activity in the area made it highly likely the fire was started in “some sort of illicit grove, a marijuana-grow-type thing.”
While the Forest Service announcement ruled out illicit drug activity as the source of the Rim fire, the fire chief's suggestion is not absurd. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, authorities removed nearly 10 million marijuana plants from “illegal outdoor grow sites” in 2010. The government website states that “nearly 88 percent of the 3,531,443 plants eradicated from National Forests were eradicated in California.” Wildfire is just one threat to public safety posed by these illicit groves, as those tending them are often heavily armed. The website notes that the number of violent incidents and intimidations on public land has increased in the last two years.