Investigators searching for answers into what caused the massive wildfire burning in and around Yosemite National Park have made some headway, fire officials said Friday.
Most authorities are mum about the details, but one fire official in Tuolumne County, Calif., offered a tantalizing clue when he recently told a community meeting that the fire was likely caused by marijuana growers.
“We don’t know the exact cause,” said Todd McNeal, fire chief in Twain Harte, a town that has been in the path of the flames. But he told a community meeting that it was “highly suspect that there might have been some sort of illicit grove, a marijuana-grow-type thing.”
“We know it’s human caused. There was no lightning in the area,” said McNeal, a former captain with the Sonora Fire Department who has fought fires for 23 years for the Forest Service, the National Park Service and other agencies in the Sierra Nevada.
His remarks, made on Aug. 23, were recorded and posted on YouTube in a video that has gotten surprisingly little attention.
Officially, authorities were saying little.
“The cause is still under investigation. There has been progress in the case, but we can’t share any additional details at this time,” said Stanton Florea, a spokesman with the U.S. Forest Service.
The Rim fire began Aug. 17 in a remote area of Stanislaus National Forest called Jawbone Ridge, far from any paved road. Smoke from the blaze has drifted so far that satellites are measuring it thousands of miles away over Canada and the Great Lakes and in traces over Europe.
By Friday, the fire had burned 201,894 acres, making it the fifth largest wildfire in California history. It was 32 percent contained; fire officials are estimating full containment on Sept. 20.
Over the past decade, the Forest Service and rural police have reported an increasing number of huge marijuana plantations being found in national forests across California and other states. The operations are run by Mexican drug cartels and are often guarded by armed lookouts, authorities say.
The growers have shot wildlife, rerouted streams and poisoned parks and forests with pesticides. They also have started fires.