SAN BERNARDINO, California –
A man whose family gender reveal photo shoot sparked a Southern California wildfire that killed a firefighter in 2020 pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors said Friday.
The El Dorado fire broke out on September 5, 2020, when Refugio Jiménez Jr. and Angelina Jiménez and their young children held a photo shoot to reveal the sex of their baby at El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa, in the foothills of the El Dorado Mountains. Saint Bernardine.
A smoke-generating pyrotechnic device was set off in a field and quickly ignited dry grass on a scorching day. The couple desperately tried to use bottled water to put out the flames and called 911, authorities said.
Strong winds fanned the fire as it moved through wilderness areas on national forest lands about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of Los Angeles. Charles Morton, the 39-year-old leader of Big Bear’s elite interagency Hotshot squad, died Sept. 17, 2020, when flames engulfed a remote area where firefighters were cutting firebreaks. Morton had worked as a firefighter for 18 years, primarily with the U.S. Forest Service.
On Friday, the San Bernardino County District Attorney announced that Refugio Jimenez Jr. had pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of recklessly setting a fire in an inhabited structure. He will be arrested on February 23 to serve one year in prison. His sentence also includes two years of felony probation and 200 hours of community service.
Angelina Jimenez pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of recklessly setting fire on another person’s property. She was sentenced to one year of summary probation and 400 hours of community service. The couple was also ordered to pay US$1,789,972 in restitution.
“Solving the case was never going to be a victory,” District Attorney Jason Anderson said in a news release, offering his condolences to Morton’s family. “For the victims who lost so much, including their homes with valuables and memories, we understand that they are intangibles that can never be replaced.”
In September, on the third anniversary of the fire’s start, the U.S. Forest Service filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers, distributors and sellers of the pyrotechnic device, as well as the couple. The lawsuit alleges that the “smoke bombs” used were illegal in California and were known to be defective.
Mike Scafiddi, Refugio Jiménez Jr.’s attorney, said the couple wanted to speak publicly about the fire, its impact on the community and Morton’s death, but cannot because of ongoing federal litigation.
“They have been praying for Mr. Morton and his family every night since his death,” Scafiddi told The Associated Press on Sunday. “He has touched them deeply.”
The lawyer said his client had researched and tested the pyrotechnic device before setting it off that day, and found no problems online or during testing.
“It was unpredictable for everyone,” he said.
Scafiddi said the couple, contrary to what has been said publicly for years, had not hosted a gender reveal party. She said it was a photo session to find out the sex of the baby with the couple, some family members and their children.
“To infer that it was a gathering of several people with food and celebration is simply incorrect,” he said. “It was just about taking pictures against a beautiful backdrop.”
A lawyer for Angelina Jiménez did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
The fire injured 13 other people and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents in small communities in the San Bernardino National Forest area. It destroyed five houses and 15 other buildings.
Flames blackened nearly 36 square miles (92 square kilometers) of land in San Bernardino and Riverside counties before the fire was contained on Nov. 16, 2020.
The fire was one of thousands during a record wildfire season in California that charred more than four percent of the state, destroyed nearly 10,500 buildings and killed 33 people.
Extremely dry conditions and heat waves related to climate change have made wildfires more difficult to fight. Climate change has made the West much hotter and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.