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Couple charged with involuntary manslaughter in Southern California fire sparked by gender reveal

PALM SPRING, Calif. — The couple who used a smoke bomb at a gender reveal ceremony and sparked Southern California’s El Dorado wildfire that killed a firefighter last year has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and 29 other crimes, authorities announced Tuesday.

Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez pleaded not guilty Tuesday, San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson announced at a news conference.

A judge released them on their own recognizance despite prosecutors’ request that they each be held on $50,000 bail, Anderson said.

The charges included one felony count of involuntary manslaughter, three felony counts of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, four felony counts of recklessly causing a fire to inhabited structures, and 22 misdemeanor counts of recklessly causing fire to property.

Anderson said Tuesday that the couple could face sentences extending from the “lower teens to low twenties” of years if found guilty on all charges.

Charlie Morton, a 14-year veteran “hotshot” firefighter with the San Bernardino National Forest, died while fighting the blaze. The fire also resulted in 13 injuries.

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When asked how prosecutors would argue the couple’s actions were responsible for Morton’s death, Anderson said the firefighter was “fighting a fire that was started because of a smoke bomb.”

“That’s the only reason he was there,” he added.

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.

A Cal Fire official on Sept. 7 told The Desert Sun, part of the USA TODAY Network, that the family had “absolutely been cooperating” with officials.

Over a 23-day period, the fire burned 22,680 acres in the Oak Glen and Yucaipa Ridge areas, and within the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area of the San Bernardino National Forest.  

The fire forced evacuations and  destroyed five residences and 15 other structures, and damaged four residences.

After Morton’s death, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen called him “a well-respected leader who was always there for his squad and his crew at the toughest times.”

A hotshot crew is a group of 20 or so firefighters that respond to large wildland fires across the country and are assigned to work the most challenging parts of the fire. 

Morton had been with the Forest Service for 14 years, joining the team in San Bernardino in 2007. He worked on both the Front Country and Mountaintop Ranger Districts, for the Mill Creek Interagency Hotshots, Engine 31, Engine 19, and the Bi

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