Refugio and Angela Jimenez: Couple faces 20 years for deadly fire sparked by gender reveal

Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr and Angela Renee Jimenez pleaded not guilty to charges involving the El Dorado wildfire that killed 39-year-old firefighter Charles Morton


                            Refugio and Angela Jimenez: Couple faces 20 years for deadly fire sparked by gender reveal
A photograph of Charles Morton, a firefighter who was killed battling the El Dorado wildfire, is displayed at a memorial service for Morton on September 25, 2020, in San Bernardino, California (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A California couple is facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter after their gender reveal party sparked a wildfire that claimed the life of a firefighter and burned over 22,000 acres of forest land.

San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson revealed at a news conference on Monday, July 19, how Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr and Angela Renee Jimenez pleaded not guilty to charges involving the El Dorado wildfire that killed 39-year-old firefighter Charles Morton.

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The El Dorado fire reportedly started on September 5, after the couple and their young children staged a gender reveal party at El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa, located at the foot of the San Bernardino mountains. The family set off some kind of a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device in a field, immediately igniting dry grass in the scorching weather. The couple called 911 and desperately tried to douse the flames using bottles of water but in vain. Strong winds fanned the flames as the fire rapidly spread across national forest land, about 75 miles east of Los Angeles. The blaze was finally extinguished on November 16.

Flames from the Lake Fire burn on a hillside near a fire truck and other vehicles on August 12, 2020, in Lake Hughes, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Jimenez family is now facing charges including one felony count of involuntary manslaughter, along with 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 various misdemeanor counts related to the fire.

Embers fall around a photographer as the Creek Fire rapidly expands on September 8, 2020, near Shaver Lake, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Prosecutors said that if found guilty on all counts, the couple faces sentences "extending" up to 20 years in prison. They had requested that the bail be set at $50,000 each for Refugio and Angela, on condition that they promised to return to court on September 15. The couple was indicted by a grand jury that heard four days of testimony from 34 witnesses and reviewed 434 exhibits, the Press-Telegram reported.

"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," the San Bernardino National Forest said in a statement on Twitter. "Our thoughts are with Charlie's family, friends, and colleagues today and always," the forest service added.



 

Heatwaves and extremely dry conditions coupled with poor forest management have made wildfires harder to contain. Morton, who was the leader of the elite Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Squad, died on September 17 when the blaze broke through a remote area where firefighters were cutting fire breaks. Morton had worked as a firefighter for 18 years, mostly with the US Forest Service.

Firefighters hoist a U.S. flag following a procession for fallen Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Charles Morton, who was killed battling the El Dorado wildfire, on September 22, 2020, in Orange, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

At least 13 other people were injured, including two firefighters. There was considerable damage to property as well. The El Dorado inferno destroyed five homes and 15 other buildings, forcing evacuations of several rural communities in the San Bernardino National Forest area. It's worth noting that the fire was just one of thousands that charred more than 4% of the state of California during a record-breaking wildfire season, which saw nearly 10,500 buildings destroyed and 33 casualties in total. 

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