A father, who started a Forest fire during her family’s gender reveal photo shoot that sparked a massive fire that left one firefighter dead, will go to jail for a year and pay a $1.8 million fine.
Refugio Jiménez Jr. and his wife Angelina Jiménez inadvertently started the 22,000-acre ‘El Dorado’ fire in September 2020 using a pyrotechnic device that was supposed to emit blue or pink smoke to reveal the sex of their baby.
The fire raged for weeks, killing U.S. Forest Service firefighter Charles Morton, 39, injuring two other firefighters and 13 civilians, destroying homes and forcing hundreds of people to evacuate.
Refugio pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and two felony counts of recklessly causing a fire in an inhabited structure.
Angelina pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors for recklessly setting a fire on another person’s property and was sentenced to one year of summary probation and community service.
Firefighters arrive to attend a memorial for Charles Morton, the U.S. Forest Service firefighter assigned to the Big Bear Hotshots who died in the line of duty on September 17, 2020.
Firefighter Ricardo Gomez, from a San Benito Monterey Cal Fire crew, conducts a controlled burn while fighting the Creek Fire.
The wildfire is shown moving up the slopes of the San Bernardino National Forest.
The couple was also ordered to pay $1,789,972 in restitution.
District Attorney Jason Anderson said, “Solving the case would never be a victory.”
The defendants’ reckless conduct had a tremendous impact on land, property, emergency response resources, the displacement of entire communities, and resulted in the tragic death of Forest Service wildland firefighter Charles Morton.
“All of these factors were given extraordinary consideration at every step of the investigation, the Grand Jury process and the court proceedings.”
The El Dorado fire began on September 5, when the Jiménezes and their young children hosted a photo shoot for the gender reveal of their new baby 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 desperately tried to use bottled water to put out the flames and called 911.
They waited at the scene for emergency services to arrive, fire department spokesperson Bennet Milloy told DailyMail.com at the time: “We know how it started because they were still there.”
Forest fire started with gender reveal photo shoot
The fire spread from El Dorado Ranch Park north toward Yucaipa Ridge and into the San Bernardino National Forest.
Cal Fire firefighters protect a structure near Montiel Truck Trail during the Valley Fire in San Diego County.
Milloy said it was a relatively small family gathering and family members had gathered to take a photo.
When asked if the family realized the seriousness of their situation, he said: “They understood the seriousness of the fire.”
Milloy continued: ‘They really believed it was an accident. But I think now they understand the seriousness of the situation.”
Strong winds fanned the fire as it moved through wilderness on national forest lands about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of Los Angeles.
Charles Morton, the 39-year-old leader of the elite Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Squadron, died Sept. 17, when flames engulfed a remote area where firefighters were cutting firebreaks.
Morton had worked as a firefighter for 18 years, primarily with the U.S. Forest Service.
The fire burned about 36 square miles of land in San Bernardino and surrounding counties until it was contained on November 16.
Mike Scafiddi, Refugio Jiménez Jr.’s attorney, said the couple wanted to speak publicly about the fire, its impact on the community and Morton’s death, but cannot because of ongoing federal litigation.
A firefighting aircraft is seen spraying the area with specially formulated fire retardants designed to smother sparks.
‘They have been praying for Mr Morton and his family every night since his death. He has touched them deeply.”
The lawyer said his client had researched and tested the pyrotechnic device before setting it off that day, and found no problems online or during testing.
“It was unpredictable for everyone.”
Scafiddi said the couple, contrary to what has been said publicly for years, had not hosted a gender reveal party. She said it was a photo session to find out the sex of the baby with the couple, some family members and their children.
‘To infer that it was a gathering of several people with food and celebration is simply incorrect. “It was just taking pictures against what was a beautiful backdrop.”
Refugio will be arrested on February 23 to serve one year in prison. His sentence also includes two years of felony probation and 200 hours of community service.
The fire was one of thousands during a record wildfire season in California that charred more than 4 percent of the state, destroyed nearly 10,500 buildings and killed 33 people.