One Year After The Rim Fire, Locals Share Frustration Over Prosecutor's Silence
Nearly one year ago, a small fire near the Tuolumne River just west of Yosemite National Park grew into the largest blaze ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada. By the time the Rim Fire was contained in late October 2013, it had burned over 400 square miles, forever changing lives and the landscape. Today many residents and county officials are still frustrated by the investigation and are searching for answers.
Randy Hanvelt remembers the moment last year when a small wildfire in Tuolumne County a year ago became a raging inferno.
"On Monday the assistant county fire warden calls us in the afternoon and says to us this is wildly out of control and it is going to hit Buck Meadows like a freight train within the hour."
As a member of the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, Hanvelt saw the Rim Fire grow from just 40 acres into the third largest wildfire recorded in California history.
It burned for 70 days, engulfing over 250 thousand acres and destroying more than 100 structures, while threatening thousands more.
But now almost a year later, residents know very little about who and what actually caused the fire. No suspects have been named. No charges have been filed, and authorities refuse to comment.
The silence has county officials like Hanvelt upset.
"Why aren't we getting answers? Is somebody covering something up? Look, I'm not making accusations but that's the natural thing you let your mind go wild and you start speculating. There's an enormous amount of anger because we haven’t gotten the answers."
It's even reached the point where the county has officially requested a Congressional hearing into the fire and an independent investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Here's what we know about the fire and its origin:
The blaze was first spotted at 3:25 PM on Saturday Aug. 17 of last year in the Clavey River canyon by a pilot returning from another fire. It was burning in an isolated area below Jawbone Ridge, in steep and rocky terrain.
Within minutes the first air tanker arrived on scene dropping retardant on the fire. Commanders decided it was too risky to send in hand crews.
"This thing was wildly out of control when it comes up these draws like this it's like a chimney," Hanvelt says. "Just drives the heat and the flames are you don’t want to be in the way."
Over the weekend the hot and windy conditions only help fuel the fire which by Sunday had grown to 400 acres.
By the next day it was clear the containment efforts were failing.
Stuart Crook is a local cattle rancher.
"On Monday, right down here it jumped on the south side of Tuolumne River and it went up toward Buck Meadows and that's when the fire exploded and took off.”
The Rim Fire would continue to burn until October 25th .
Right away, Crook and other residents wanted to know what triggered the massive blaze.
A week after the fire began, they thought they got an answer. During a community meeting Twain Harte fire chief Todd McNeal suggested a possible cause.
“[We] highly suspect that it might have been some sort of illicit grove, marijuana grove type of thing."
His statement made national headlines, but the U.S. Forest Service called McNeal’s theory a rumor. Then on September 5th, the Forest Service made an announcement. Their investigation revealed that the fire began when a hunter lost control of an illegal fire. The Forest Service had a suspect but refused to disclose their name.
For months the case was quiet. Then in early December, Tuolumne County District Attorney Michael Knowles said in a written statement that federal prosecutors privately declared their intention to prosecute. But federal declined to confirm Knowles statement and those charges have yet to be filed.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service says the case is still under investigation and the case is in the hands of U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. His spokesperson also declined to comment.
Searching for answers, I drove to Tuolumne County to see where the fire started. I met up with Supervisor Hanvelt on a ridge overlooking the Clavey River Canyon.
"We're standing on the edge of the fire foot print in a burned out brush field. We're standing in the midst of a very few small trees that are burned dead and large manzanitas fields which is all dead.”
As we walk around the burned forest, Hanvelt tells me he’s still a bit skeptical of the official story.
"In the middle of the day, why would a hunter have a campfire? On a very hot day. There's only two reasons to have a campfire. To cook food or to keep warm. He didn't need to keep warm and I’m pretty sure he didn't need to cook food. That doesn’t make sense."
Stuart Crook, the cattle rancher shares Hanvelt's frustration.
"It's beyond me. How did this thing start? Why would there be a hunter down there. It's just hard for us to comprehend that. We want some answers. Just can't believe that happened and nothing's been done."
That's why the county in January requested an independent investigation led by the USDA.
"We've sent letter to the Department of Agriculture and asked them what's going on, what happened? We had a whole list of questions," Hanvelt says. "The answer we got back was not satisfactory, so we sent another letter and we’ve not heard a response to that one."
Now the county is requesting a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee.
They want answers as to the cause, the way firefighters fought the fire and the way the forest was managed before the fire happened.
"We need to have a legitimate lessons learned on this thing and it’s probably too late because memories loose so that we learn as much as we can so that we don’t have this happen again," Hanvelt says.
Congressman Tom McClintock is a member of the natural resources committee and represents the 4th district including Tuolumne County. He says that hearing might not happen.
"The board of supervisors is absolutely right to keep pressing the issue but without additional evidence it’s difficult to call for a full congressional hearing until there are facts in dispute."
As to the criminal investigation, it's not unprecedented for months to pass before charges are filed.
Wildfire law expert Karen Bradshaw Schulz points out that in some cases prosecutors will not file charges against a suspect.
"There can be cases where based upon the facts that are revealed throughout the course of the investigation the prosecutor decides not to bring charges. It just depends on the facts."
Evan Royce, the current chairman of the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors, says they just want to know what happened.
"There's several things either they don’t have a good case and they’re doing an inadequate job or it’s not even true the hunter was just the escape goat story that they released in the beginning to give people a reason and they don’t know what started it. No matter how you look at it something is not right."
As of now, the board’s request is still pending. And who knows when, or if, charges will be filed against the suspected hunter.