Dad in gender-reveal that sparked fatal 2020 California wildfire has pleaded guilty

SAN BERNARDINO, California — A man whose family’s gender reveal photo sparked a Southern California wildfire that killed a firefighter in 2020 has pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors said Friday.

The El Dorado Fire broke out on September 5, 2020, when Refugio Jimenez Jr. and Angelina Jimenez and their young children hosted a photo shoot for their baby’s gender reveal at El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa, at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains.

A smoke-generating pyrotechnic device was detonated in a field, causing grass to quickly dry on a scorching day. The couple frantically tried to use bottled water to douse the flames and called 911, authorities said.

Strong winds fanned the fire as it raged through wilderness on national forest land about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of Los Angeles. Charles Morton, the 39-year-old leader of the elite Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Squad, was killed on September 17, 2020, when flames engulfed a remote area where firefighters were cutting firebreaks. Morton had worked as a firefighter for 18 years, mostly with the US Forest Service.

On Friday, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office announced that Refugio Jimenez Jr. had pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of recklessly causing a fire in an occupied building. He will be taken into custody on February 23 and will serve a year in prison. His sentence also includes two years of probation and 200 hours of community service.

Angelina Jimenez pleaded guilty to three counts of recklessly causing a fire to the property of another. She was sentenced to one year of pre-trial detention and 400 hours of community service. The couple was also ordered to pay $1,789,972 in restitution.

“Closing the case would never be a victory,” District Attorney Jason Anderson said in a news release, offering his condolences to Morton’s family. “To the victims who have lost so much, including their homes of valuables and memories, we understand that these are intangible assets that can never be replaced.”

The US Forest Service filed a lawsuit in September – on the third anniversary of the fire’s start – 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 known to be defective.

Mike Scafiddi, Refugio Jimenez Jr.’s attorney, said the couple wanted to speak publicly about the fire, its impact on the community and Morton’s death, but that is not possible because of ongoing federal litigation.

“They have prayed for Mr. Morton and his family every night since his death,” Scafiddi told The Associated Press on Sunday. “It affected them deeply.”

The lawyer said his client had examined and tested the pyrotechnic device before setting it off that day, and found no problems online or during his test.

“It was unpredictable for everyone,” he said.

Scafiddi said that, contrary to what has been said publicly for years, the couple had not organized a gender reveal party. He said it was a photo shoot to discover the baby’s gender with the couple, some family members and their children.

“It is simply incorrect to conclude that it was a gathering of several people with food and celebration,” he said. “This was just shooting against a beautiful background.”

An attorney for Angelina Jimenez did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

The fire injured thirteen other people and forced hundreds of residents of small communities in the San Bernardino National Forest area to evacuate. It destroyed five houses and fifteen other buildings.

Flames blackened nearly 92 square kilometers of land in San Bernardino and Riverside counties before the fire was brought under control on November 16, 2020.

The fire was one of thousands during a record-breaking California wildfire season that charred more than 4% of the state while destroying nearly 10,500 buildings and killing 33 people.

Extremely dry conditions and heat waves linked to climate change have made wildfires more difficult to fight. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past thirty years and will make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.