SAN FRANCISCO – As officials ask for the public's help in finding the people who started an illegal campfire that grew into a massive wildfire north of Big Sur, authorities are considering what penalties the campers could face once they are found.
The blaze has charred more than 71 square miles, destroyed 57 homes and killed a 35-year-old bulldozer operator when the heavy equipment rolled over.
Monterey County Sheriff's spokesman Cmdr. John Thornburg said those responsible could face criminal charges in the death of Robert Reagan of Fresno County.
"Could that death potentially come back on (those responsible)?" Thornburg said. "Maybe."
Whoever started the illegal campfire could also face civil penalties for the cost related to the firefighting. More than 5,500 crews are working the fire that's threatening 2,000 structures and was only 25 percent contained Wednesday.
"It's one thing if you burn up a tree, it's another thing if you burn up the forest," Thornburg said.
Fire investigators determined an unattended campfire started the blaze on July 22 in Garapata Park.
California State Parks spokesman Dennis Weber said Garapata Park is for day use only and campfires are strictly prohibited.
"There are two trailheads and both have ample signage that there is no camping and no campfires allowed," Weber said.
In 2013, Keith Matthew Emerald was charged with starting the Rim Fire. Prosecutors said the deer hunter lost control of an illegal campfire, which burned 400 square miles in Stanislaus National Forest and parts of Yosemite National Park.
The fire, one of the largest in recorded state history, destroyed 11 homes and cost more than $125 million to fight.
Emerald pleaded not guilty and prosecutors later dropped the case after two key witnesses died.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Erik Scott said the cause of the current fire near Big Sur was determined after investigators spent more than 150 hours combing through debris. No arrests have been made.
Thornburg said detectives are following investigative leads and declined to speculate on who might have started the blaze.
Five days after the fire started a group of seven men were rescued from the fire. They told authorities they were backcountry hikers but police later speculated they were marijuana growers.
A separate group of four walked out of the area earlier and acknowledged growing marijuana.
All vegetation burned up in the fire so no evidence remained.
There can be severe penalties even when a person accidentally causes a wildfire.
Matt Rupp served two years in prison for igniting a fire near Redding by riding a mower over a field of dry grass on a scorching day in 2004. Prosecutors said Rupp ignored neighbor's warnings and public-service spots on TV and told a passer-by to "Go to hell" when the person spotted Rupp on the mower.
That fire destroyed 86 homes in a remote community on the edge of Lake Shasta. He said it was an accident.
On Wednesday, Daniel Lee Bentley, 36, was sentenced to two years in prison for starting a wildfire that burned 440 acres in Shasta County last month. He also faces three years parole upon his release and will have to register as a convicted arsonist with the state. He pleaded no contest to the felony arson charge.
The damage from the Big Sur fire could ultimately be much worse than it is now.
All California state parks in the area are closed until further notice.