A man involved in a gender reveal photo shoot that sparked a devastating wildfire in Southern California has pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, according to prosecutors. Refugio Jimenez Jr., along with his wife Angelina Jimenez, staged the photo shoot at El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa, California, on September 5, 2020. The couple set off a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device, which quickly ignited dry grass in the area.
The El Dorado Fire, fueled by strong winds and scorching temperatures, spread rapidly through the San Bernardino Mountains. Tragically, the fire claimed the life of Charles Morton, a 39-year-old firefighter and leader of the elite Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Squad. Morton had been battling the blaze when he was overrun by flames on September 17, 2020.
On Friday, Refugio Jimenez Jr. pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure. He is set to be taken into custody on February 23 and will serve a year in jail. Additionally, he will be placed on two years of felony probation and must complete 200 hours of community service. Angelina Jimenez pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of recklessly causing fire to property of another. She received a sentence of one year of summary probation and 400 hours of community service.
The couple has also been ordered to pay $1,789,972 in restitution to the victims who lost their homes and belongings in the fire. San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson expressed his condolences to Morton’s family and acknowledged that resolving the case would never truly be a win for anyone involved.
The U.S. Forest Service filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of the pyrotechnic device, as well as the couple, alleging that the “Smoke Bombs” used were illegal in California and known to be defective. However, due to ongoing federal litigation, the Jimenezes have been unable to publicly address the fire, its impact on the community, and Morton’s tragic death.
According to their lawyer, Refugio Jimenez Jr. had researched and tested the pyrotechnic device before the photo shoot, finding no issues during his preparations. The couple’s attorney emphasized that the event was not a gender-reveal party but rather a photo shoot involving only a few relatives and their children.
The El Dorado Fire burned nearly 36 square miles of land in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, destroying five homes and 15 other structures. It injured 13 individuals and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents in the area. The fire was one of many during California’s record-breaking wildfire season in 2020, which saw widespread destruction and loss of life.