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Couple charged in deadly California wildfire sparked during gender reveal

A firefighter died battling the El Dorado Fire that erupted after a couple set off a smoke bomb for a gender-reveal party in September.
September 9: A group of inmate firefighter watch as the El Dorado Fire burns a hillside near homes in Mountain Home Village, California, inside the San Bernardino National Forest, September 9, 2020.
A group of inmate firefighters watch as the El Dorado Fire burns a hillside near homes in Mountain Home Village, Calif., inside the San Bernardino National Forest, on Sept. 9, 2020.Kyle Grillot / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

A couple has been criminally charged after their gender-reveal event allegedly sparked a Southern California wildfire that led to the death of a firefighter, the district attorney announced Tuesday.

Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez were indicted on involuntary manslaughter and other counts stemming from the El Dorado Fire, which erupted in Yucaipa on Sept. 5.

The fire was started by a smoke bomb at El Dorado Ranch Park and exploded in the hot, dry conditions, eventually burning more than 22,000 acres. Firefighter Charlie Morton, a hotshot squad boss, died battling the blaze Sept. 17.

"He’s fighting a fire that was started because of a smoke bomb. That's the only reason he's there," San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson said at a news conference.

Refugio and Angela Jimenez were arraigned Tuesday, and both pleaded not guilty, Anderson said. They were released on their own recognizance.

Online court records did not appear to show their cases Tuesday night, and it was not clear if they had an attorney. A phone number for them could not immediately be found.

The case was presented to a criminal grand jury, which returned a true bill Monday and led to the indictments, Anderson said.

The pair is charged with involuntary manslaughter, three counts of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, four counts of recklessly causing a fire to inhabited structures, and 22 misdemeanor counts that deal with fire to other property, Anderson said.

Morton, 39, was a Big Bear Interagency Hotshot squad boss. Hotshot crews can be sent all over the United States to fight wildland fires.

The El Dorado Fire led to evacuations and destroyed five homes. When it erupted temperatures in the area were 15 to 20 degrees higher than normal, fire officials have said.

It was part of what California officials called one of the worst fire seasons in the nation's history. Experts have said that climate change is exacerbating wildfire conditions and contributing to longer and more intense fire seasons.

The Western U.S. is experiencing extreme heat and wildfires, including the massive Bootleg Fire in Oregon.

The Bootleg Fire, the largest wildfire in the U.S., has grown to more than 388,000 acres — or more than 606 square miles — and has seen extreme behavior that has forced crews to move to safety zones, officials said. The fire was 32 percent contained Tuesday.