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California couple accused of igniting massive wildfire with a gender-reveal smoke bomb charged with manslaughter

  • Author: Brian Rokos, San Bernardino County Sun
  • Updated: 4 days ago
  • Published 4 days ago

Inmate firefighters watch as the El Dorado Fire burns a hillside near homes in Mountain Home Village, Calif., inside the San Bernardino National Forest on Sept. 9, 2020. (Photo by Kyle Grillot for The Washington Post)

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Two people have been indicted on multiple charges, including involuntary manslaughter, in connection with a pyrotechnic gender-reveal photo shoot that went awry and sparked last year’s deadly 22,680-acre El Dorado wildfire in San Bernardino County, the county’s top prosecutor said Tuesday.

District Attorney Jason Anderson announced the charges at a news conference after the grand jury heard four days of testimony, listened to 34 witnesses and reviewed 434 exhibits before returning 30 counts against the couple. The indictment was unsealed Tuesday.

Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angelina Renee Jimenez, the couple accused of being behind the gender-reveal event that involved a pyrotechnic device, were charged with one count of involuntary manslaughter, 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 property of another, Anderson said.

They pleaded not guilty to all charges in Superior Court in San Bernardino. The DA’s Office sought bail, but they were released on their own recognizance, Anderson said. It could not be immediately determined if they were represented by attorneys as the Superior Court’s online records did not yet reflect the Jimenezes’ appearances Tuesday evening.

Among the victims was U.S. Forest Service hotshot firefighter Charles Morton, who perished in the blaze. Thirteen other firefighters were injured.

Anderson said the indictment suggests that the grand jury found an “unbroken chain” of events — one that did not include firefighter negligence — that led to the death of Morton, a 39-year-old resident of Big Bear.

“The conditions that were created that led to the firefighter death were a direct result of the fire,” Anderson said.

The El Dorado fire started Sept. 5 at El Dorado Ranch Park when sparks from a pyrotechnic device used to generate colored smoke — which color has not been revealed — during a gender-reveal photo shoot ignited dry brush on an unseasonably warm day, Cal Fire’s San Bernardino Unit said.

Morton, a USFS hotshot crew boss, died fighting the fire in the San Gorgonio Wilderness on Sept. 17 when flames burned over him. More detailed circumstances of his death have not been made public.

Zachary Behrens, a spokesman for the USFS, referred questions about the status of the investigation to the Washington D.C. office.

“We would like to thank the District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Department for their hard work and diligence in bringing forth charges in this case. Our thoughts are with Charlie’s family, friends and colleagues today and always,” the USFS said in a written statement.

The fire burned 22,680 acres, destroyed five homes and damaged four others in addition to the human toll it took.

Mountain Home Village, Forest Falls, Angelus Oaks, Seven Oaks and Barton Flats were among the communities evacuated. The fire also burned in Cherry Valley in Riverside County.

Anderson acknowledged that the length of time it took the DA’s Office to reach a decision on filing charges frustrated some members of the public. Six agencies were involved in the investigation, and Anderson said in late February that he had not yet received every report.

“Given the scope and impact of the El Dorado fire on the land and lives of so many, particularly Charles Morton and his family, it was imperative that every investigation be completed within both federal and state agencies to provide a full and fair presentation to the members of our community that made up the grand jury,” Anderson said.

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