SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — A man whose family’s gender reveal photo shoot sparked a Southern California wildfire that killed a firefighter in 2020 has pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors said Friday.
The El Dorado Fire erupted on Sept. 5, 2020, when Refugio Jimenez Jr. and Angelina Jimenez and their young children staged a photo shoot for their baby gender reveal at El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa, at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains.
A smoke-generating pyrotechnic device was set off in a field and quickly ignited dry grass on a scorching day. The couple frantically tried to use bottled water to douse the flames and called 911, authorities said.
Strong winds stoked the fire as it ran through wilderness on national forest land, about 75 miles east of Los Angeles. Charles Morton, the 39-year-old leader of the elite Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Squad, was killed on Sept. 17, 2020, when flames overran a remote area where firefighters were cutting fire breaks. Morton had worked as a firefighter for 18 years, mostly 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 causing a fire to an inhabited structure. He will be taken into custody on Feb. 23 to serve a year in jail. 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 causing fire to property of another. She was sentenced to a year of summary probation and 400 hours of community service. The couple was also ordered to pay $1,789,972 in restitution.
“Resolving the case was never going to be a win,” District Attorney Jason Anderson said in a news release, offering his condolences to Morton’s family. “To the victims who lost so much, including their homes with valuables and memories, we understand those are intangibles can never be replaced.”
The U.S. Forest Service in September — on the third anniversary of the ignition of the fire — filed a lawsuit against the pyrotechnic device’s manufacturers, distributors and sellers, as well as the couple. The lawsuit alleges that the “Smoke Bombs” used were illegal in California and known to be defective.
Mike Scafiddi, the lawyer for Refugio Jimenez Jr., said the couple has wanted to speak publicly about the fire, its impact on the community and Morton’s death but cannot because of the 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. “It has touched them profoundly.”
The lawyer said his client had researched and tested the pyrotechnic device before setting it off that day, finding no problems online or during his test.
“It was unforeseeable in all minds,” he said.
Scafiddi said the couple had not, contrary to what’s been said publicly for years, hosted a gender-reveal party. He said it was a photo shoot to discover the baby’s gender with the couple, a few relatives and their children.
“To infer that it was a gathering of multiple people with food and celebration is simply incorrect,” he said. “This was simply taking photographs in what was a beautiful backdrop.”
An attorney for Angelina Jimenez did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
The blaze injured 13 other people and forced the evacuations of hundreds of residents in small communities in the San Bernardino National Forest area. It destroyed five homes and 15 other buildings.
Flames blackened nearly 36 square miles (92 square kilometers) of land in San Bernardino and Riverside counties before the blaze was contained on Nov. 16, 2020.
The fire was one of thousands during a record-breaking wildfire season in California that charred more than 4% of the state while destroying nearly 10,500 buildings and killing 33 people.
Extremely dry conditions and heat waves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.