California couple pleads guilty over gender-reveal photoshoot that sparked deadly wildfire

A California couple whose gender-reveal event ignited a fatal wildfire has pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, the San Bernardino County district attorney has announced.

Refugio Jimenez Jr, along with his wife Angelina Jimenez, staged a photo shoot at El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa in 2020, which resulted in a catastrophic blaze that claimed the life of firefighter Charles Morton.

The incident occurred on 5 September 2020, when the couple used coloured smoke bombs to reveal the gender of their child on a scorching, dry day.

The surrounding brush caught fire and despite their efforts to control the flames using bottled water and a prompt call to 911, strong winds caused the blaze to spread rapidly on national forest land, about 120 kilometres east of Los Angeles.

The leader of the elite Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Squad, Charles Morton, lost his life on 17 September 2020, when flames overran the area where firefighters were working.

The San Bernardino County district attorney announced on Friday that Mr Jimenez Jr pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure.

The case was filed in September 2023 on the third anniversary of the incident by the US Forest Service, which alleged the smoke bombs used were illegal in California and known to be defective.

The couple claims they tested the devices beforehand and they weren’t faulty.

Other parties accused in the case besides the couple were the pyrotechnic device’s manufacturers, distributors and sellers.

After pleading guilty, Mr Jimenez Jr is now set to serve a year in jail, accompanied by two years of felony probation and 200 hours of community service.

The El Dorado fire is pictured on 5 September, 2020, in Yucaipa, California. (AP)
The El Dorado fire is pictured on 5 September, 2020, in Yucaipa, California. (AP)

Angelina Jimenez, his wife, also pleaded guilty to three misdemeanour counts of recklessly causing fire to property and received a sentence of a year of summary probation and 400 hours of community service. The couple has also been ordered to pay $1,789,972 (£1,420,000) in restitution.

"Resolving the case was never going to be a win,” said district attorney Jason Anderson announcing the verdict.

“To the victims who lost so much, including their homes with valuables and memories, we understand those are intangibles can never be replaced.”

Mike Scafiddi, the lawyer for the couple, told The Associated Press that they had been “praying for Mr Morton and his family every night since his death” but couldn’t speak about the case due to ongoing federal litigation.

“It has touched them profoundly.”

He also clarified that unlike certain reports portrayed, there was no gathering taking place on 5 September, but just a photoshoot.

“To infer that it was a gathering of multiple people with food and celebration is simply incorrect,” he said. “This was simply taking photographs in what was a beautiful backdrop.”

Mr Scafiddi said the incident was “unforeseeable in all minds” as the device was tested before use.

The wildfire resulted in 13 injuries, hundreds of evacuations, and the destruction of homes and buildings. It blackened nearly 36 square miles of land in San Bernardino and Riverside counties before containment over two months later.

Increasing global temperatures worldwide have made wildfires much more difficult to douse due to drier conditions and reduced soil moisture.

In 2020, California saw a record-breaking wildfire season with over 9,900 fires burning 4.3 million acres of land, approximately 4 per cent of the state’s land.