Investigators have ruled out the possibility that an illegal marijuana growing operation started the monster California wildfire that has blackened a swath of Yosemite National Park, officials said on Wednesday, although the cause of the blaze was still unknown.
The so-called Rim Fire, which broke out on Aug. 17 in the Stanislaus National Forest, has charred more than 237,000 acres of Northern California - an area larger than the city of Dallas - making it the fourth largest in modern state history.
The flames were 80 percent contained as of Wednesday evening, according to fire officials, but were expected to burn for several more weeks as crews worked to protect Yosemite, one of the nation's top tourist destinations.
Though fire officials have said the cause of the Rim Fire was still under investigation, videotaped comments made by Todd McNeal, chief of the Twain Harte Fire Department, during an Aug. 23 community meeting prompted speculation that an illegal pot growing operation was to blame.
"We know it's human caused, there was no lightning in the area, but we don't know the exact cause, what it was, highly suspected there might have been some sort of illicit, you know, grove, marijuana grow type thing," McNeal said during his remarks, which were videotaped and posted on YouTube.
Reuters has been unable to reach McNeal to elaborate and fire officials have declined to address his statement.
On Wednesday, fire spokeswoman Anne Grandy said while investigators had not yet determined what touched off the massive fire, they concluded that an illegal pot growing operation was not to blame.
"It is still under investigation, but, because all of the press and the rumors, they've determined that at least they can tell us it was not a marijuana growing operation," Grandy said.
Grandy said she didn't know what prompted investigators to reach that conclusion.
Jerry Snyder, a spokesman for the Stanislaus National Forest, told the San Jose Mercury News that it was a highly unlikely spot for a marijuana growing operation.
"This is very steep, dry, inhospitable ground," Snyder told the paper. "It's not conducive to growing marijuana in there."
So far the Rim Fire has scorched more than 66,000 acres inside Yosemite National Park, mostly in less-visited back country areas. Several campgrounds remain closed, along with parts of Highway 120 leading to one of its two west entrances.
The most popular portions of the park remain open, including the scenic Yosemite Valley area famed for its towering granite rock formations, waterfalls, meadows and pine forests.
The fire has destroyed dozens of homes and cabins in the region, but no serious injuries have been reported. (Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Stacey Joyce)
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