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Couple Whose Gender Reveal Set Off Massive El Dorado Wildfire Facing 8 Felony Charges

Prosecutors charged the California couple with involuntary manslaughter and 29 other charges in the 2020 El Dorado fire.

By Megan Carpentier
Charges Emerge For Couple In Massive California Fire

The California couple whose gender reveal party sparked a massive wildfire that killed a firefighter and injured two others last summer were charged with multiple felonies in court this week. 

Husband and wife Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angelina Renee Jimenez, whose reported Sept. 5 gender reveal party at the El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa, California allegedly sparked a 73-day fire in the San Bernardino Mountains, were charged with 8 felonies and 22 misdemeanors by San Bernardino County prosecutors on Tuesday. The party involved a colored smoke bomb, which is believed to have brought about the blaze that killed a veteran firefighter and injured two others.

Charles Morton Memorial G 1

San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson announced at a news conference on Tuesday that the charges for the couple, as determined by a grand jury, included one felony count of involuntary manslaughter for the death of Charles Morton, a firefighting veteran of 18 years. Morton died while fighting the blaze on Sept. 17. The charges also include three felony counts of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, four felony counts of recklessly causing a fire to inhabited structures, and 22 misdemeanor counts of recklessly causing a fire to the property of others.

The department requested bail of $50,000, but the couple was released on their own recognizance.

Anderson acknowledged that the slow pace of charges in the case had frustrated some members of the community, but suggested that it had been necessary to build the case.

"It was imperative that every investigation be complete within both federal and state agencies to provide a full, fair presentation to the members of our community that made up the criminal grand jury," he said, noting that the presentation by lawyers in his office took four days, called for testimony from 32 witnesses and involved 434 separate exhibits.

San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus praised the use of the grand jury process in the case.

"In cases like this that aren't very clear cut, their peers, citizens of this county, actually make the determination as to what cases are to be filed," Dicus said.

Authorities have reported since the fire's inception that it was a result of a so-called gender reveal pyrotechnic that was set off in the park despite dry conditions and higher-than-normal temperatures. The Palm Springs Desert Sun reported that the couple's other young children were present at the event. Authorities told Los Angeles' KTLA at the time that, after the smoke bomb ignited the park's dry grass, the couple attempted to extinguish the fire with water from personal bottles; when that failed they called 911. A Cal Fire official told the Desert Sun two days later that the family was cooperating with authorities.

The gender of the couple's child has never been revealed to the media.

The fire that began at the El Dorado Park in Yucaipa on Sept. 5 burned a total of 22,680 acres, encompassing both inhabited areas and the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area of the San Bernardino National Forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The communities of north Yucaipa, Oak Glen, Angelus Oaks, Mountain Home Village and Forest Falls had to be evacuated as a result of the fire; five homes were destroyed, four were damaged and 15 other non-residential structures were destroyed.

In addition to the death of Morton, 13 people were injured; at the fire's peak, there were 1,351 people assigned to fight it.

If the gender reveal pyrotechnic the couple allegedly used is ultimately determined to be the cause of the El Dorado fire, it will be the second time in recent years that such a pyrotechnic caused a massive fire that burned at an out-of-control rate. 

In 2017, then-Border Patrol Agent Dennis Dickey set up an explosive target on state-owned land near Madera Canyon south of his residence in Tuscon on a windy day on which the Weather Service had issued a fire watch, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Firing upon it to release a plume of blue smoke then started a fire in the dry grass in which Dickey had placed the homemade pyrotechnic, which he was unable to control; he reported it to law enforcement and also cooperated with authorities, according to the local news outlet.

The resulting Sawmill Fire ultimately spread over 47,000 acres around Tucson, caused more than $8 million in damage and required the work of 800 firefighters. Dickey ultimately pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of starting the fire and agreed to pay some restitution.

The Jimenezes are due back in court on Sept. 15.

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