A hunter who allowed an illegal campfire to leap out of control caused the massive blaze burning in and around Yosemite National Park, investigators from the U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday.

No arrests have been made, and the hunter's name is being withheld "pending further investigation," Forest Service spokesman Ray Mooney said. Investigators declined to release further details Thursday, including where he's from, whether they have interviewed him and whether there were other hunters involved.

But his excursion into the Stanislaus National Forest, where the Rim Fire began west of Yosemite on Aug. 17, is not going to be cheap. Not only could the hunter face criminal charges and possible jail time, federal officials may send him a bill for the costs of putting out the fire -- $81 million thus far.

"How much should he be worried? A lot," said attorney Kyle Graham, a former national park ranger who now teaches law at Santa Clara University.

Even if the hunter isn't a multimillionaire who could afford to pay all of the firefighting costs, that doesn't mean he won't be pursued for some of them, said Graham, a former firefighter and deputy district attorney in Mono County, which abuts Yosemite.

"There's no rule that says the state will or should only go after individuals with large bank accounts," he said. "The state's interest in such a case may be to send a message, or to recover some costs, or both."


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At its peak last week, more than 5,000 firefighters from around the nation were battling the blaze. The fire, now 80 percent contained, has burned 237,341 acres, including 66,155 acres within Yosemite National Park between Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and the Tioga Road. It is the largest fire in recorded history in the Sierra Nevada and the largest in Yosemite since the park began keeping records in 1930. It also has destroyed 11 homes, dozens of other structures and caused five injuries.

Under state and federal law, government agencies have broad authority to recover costs from people who set fires deliberately or negligently.

Stanton Florea, a Forest Service spokesman, said he doesn't know yet if the hunter will be sent a bill.

"There is a mechanism to do that. It's happened in previous cases. It's up to our general counsel," he said.

The Forest Service says the blaze started in an area called Jawbone Ridge, north of Highway 120 near Groveland. There is no indication the hunter who started the campfire was involved with illegal marijuana cultivation, Forest Service officials said.

On Aug. 23, a local fire chief, Todd McNeal of Twain Harte Fire and Rescue, had told a community meeting: "We know it's human caused. There was no lightning in the area." He added that it was "highly suspected that there might have been some sort of illicit grove, a marijuana-grow-type thing."

When the fire began, at about 3 p.m., most of the forest already was under significant fire restrictions because of dry conditions. In June, Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski announced that campfires, stoves and smoking were all banned in "high hazard areas" of the forest -- generally drier, low-elevation areas -- with penalties of up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine for violators. She extended that order on Aug. 8 to include "moderate hazard areas" after another fire, called the Power Fire, burned 1,070 acres in early August about 30 miles north of where the Rim Fire started.

The location where the hunter started the fire was in a "high hazard area," so any campfire would have been a violation of the law.

Often, the people who start fires do not have the means to pay the massive suppression costs. Sometimes, however, they do.

Singer Johnny Cash was blamed for starting a fire in Los Padres National Forest in 1965. A camper truck he was driving on a fishing trip near Ventura became stuck in the sand. The hot exhaust pipe ignited grasses and burned 508 acres.

Billed $125,000, Cash eventually settled the case for $82,000.

Mormon leaders were found negligent in a 1989 fire that burned 78 acres of the Tahoe National Forest. It began when church officials lost control of a campfire while trying to teach children about fire safety.

The Forest Service bill: $305,000. The church settled for $223,570.

In 2007, a former schoolteacher burning paper plates in a metal barrel near a remote cabin started a fire that burned 47,000 acres in Henry Coe State Park in Santa Clara County. State officials sent Margaret Pavese, of San Juan Bautista, a bill for $16 million.

Pavese pleaded no contest in 2009 to one misdemeanor count of failing to exercise reasonable care in the disposal of flammable materials. She completed 250 hours of community service and paid $200,000 in restitution to three fire victims whose cabins and vehicles were destroyed. The state dropped the $16 million claim after the criminal case was resolved.

"If the guy says, 'I have my house, $50,000 in stock, a pension and a couple of cars, and my finger ready to press the bankruptcy trigger,'" Graham said, "it would strike me the state would come to the bargaining table and say, 'Here's what we'll take.'"

Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulrogerssjmn.