Couple whose gender reveal party sparked California wildfire charged in death of Hotshot crew boss

A couple whose gender reveal party sparked a Southern California wildfire that killed the leader of an elite firefighting team last year were charged with involuntary manslaughter, authorities announced Tuesday.

Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez pleaded not guilty Monday to charges involving the El Dorado Fire, San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson announced at a news conference.

The charges included one felony count of involuntary manslaughter, along with other felony and misdemeanor counts related to the fire. CBS Los Angeles reports the couple each face up to 20 years behind bars if convicted as charged.

The El Dorado Fire erupted on Sept. 5 when the couple and their young children staged a baby gender reveal at El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa, at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains. The device quickly ignited dry grass on a scorching day.

The fire “was caused by a smoke generating pyrotechnic device, used during a gender reveal party,” Cal Fire said at the time.

The couple frantically tried to use bottled water to douse the flames and called 911, authorities said.

Strong winds stoked the fire as it ran through wilderness on national forest land, about 75 miles east of Los Angeles.

By the time the fire was extinguished on Nov. 16, it had burned 22,680 acres in the Oak Glen/Yucaipa Ridge area and within the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area of the San Bernardino National Forest, CBS Los Angeles reported.  At the peak of the fire, there were 1,351 personnel assigned to the fire

Extremely dry conditions and heat waves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

On Sept. 17, flames overran a remote area where firefighters were cutting fire breaks, killing Charlie Morton, the 39-year-old leader of the elite Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Squad. Morton had worked as a firefighter for 18 years, mostly with the U.S. Forest Service.

Sharing our deepest sympathies from Chief Vicki Christiansen:

“Thursday evening we lost one of our own. Charlie Morton, Squad Boss for the Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Crew of the San Bernardino National Forest, was tragically killed during efforts to… (continued) pic.twitter.com/pfzmVkGQ0v

The blaze injured 13 other people and forced the evacuations of hundreds of residents in small communities in the San Bernardino National Forest area. It destroyed five homes and 15 other buildings. The blaze blackened nearly 36 square miles of land in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

The fire was one of thousands during a record-breaking wildfire season in California that charred more than 4% of the state while destroying nearly 10,500 buildings and killing 33 people.

The couple were released on their own recognizance pending a Sept. 15 court date.

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