Couple Charged With Manslaughter After Gender Reveal Pyrotechnics Sparked a Deadly Wildfire

A photo of Charles Morton, the Big Bear Interagency Hotshot fire team leader who perished fighting the El Dorado wildfire, at a memorial service in San Bernardino on Sept. 25, 2020.

A photo of Charles Morton, the Big Bear Interagency Hotshot fire team leader who perished fighting the El Dorado wildfire, at a memorial service in San Bernardino on Sept. 25, 2020.
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

Authorities have charged a California couple whose gender reveal party ignited the nearly 22,700 acre El Dorado Fire last year with the involuntary manslaughter of the leader of a firefighting team.

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Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez each face a felony count of involuntary manslaughter, as well as seven other felony counts of recklessly starting a fire that caused bodily injury and affected inhabited structures and 22 misdemeanor counts of recklessly causing damage to another’s property. In an announcement of the charges, San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson said the couple’s pyrotechnic display set off the inferno on Sept. 5, 2020, after which it burned through tens of thousands of acres in the region of Oak Glen and Yucaipa Ridge and San Bernardino National Forest’s San Gorgonio Wilderness Area.

Firefighter Charles Morton, the 14-year veteran who led an elite, interagency hotshot crew, died on Sept. 17 after his position was burned over by the El Dorado Fire. The Associated Press reported at least 13 other people were injured, while five homes burned down, 15 other structures were destroyed, and hundreds of people were evacuated for their own safety. The fire came amid a firestorm that engulfed California following a freak spell of dry lightning in August that taxed resources to the brink.

Cal Fire determined that a “smoke generating pyrotechnic device, used during a gender reveal party” caused the fire to ignite. The flames quickly burned through dry grass. According to CBS, the couple attempted to douse the flames with bottled water and contacted 911. A grand jury reviewed 434 exhibits before issuing an indictment unveiled on Tuesday, CNN reported. The couple is pleading not guilty to all charges.

“You’re obviously dealing with lost lives, you’re dealing with injured lives, and you’re dealing with people’s residences that were burned and their land that was burned,” Anderson told reporters, according to CNN. “That encompasses a lot of, not only emotion, but damage, both financially and psychologically.” He added the fire “had a tremendous impact on the community of San Bernardino” and required the involvement of at least six separate agencies to control.

Last year was the worst wildfire season in California history, with more than 4.1 million acres of land burned, 31 deaths, and the damage or destruction of over 10,000 buildings. A complicated mix of factors is to blame, including fire suppression policy that has resulted in forests growing denser with brush, increased human encroachment into every part of the state, and climate change, which is worsening drought and making large swathes of the West Coast hotter, drier, and more prone to extreme fire events—in terrifyingly rapid fashion.

This year has continued the trend. Large fires have already ignited throughout California, with Cal Fire reporting 5,371 incidents that have burned over 233,405 acres as of Wednesday (thankfully, with no loss of life so far). Those fires have exhibited extreme behavior, including spawning at least one firenado. As of earlier this month, the fire season was far outpacing 2020.

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Elsewhere across the West, large wildfires are also raging. Oregon’s Bootleg Fire is among the 60-plus large wildfires growing throughout the region as well as hundreds of more blazes across the border in Canada. The fires have sent smoke streaming across the country and otherwise wrought havoc, leading the Forest Service chief to declare this a “national wildfire crisis.” The charges brought in San Bernardino are a reminder that the last thing we need are any more pyrotechnic-themed gender reveals right now.

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