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Man behind gender reveal that sparked El Dorado fire in Southern California pleads guilty

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A man who ignited a 22,000-acre fire that killed a firefighter and burned down homes in California will spend one year in county jail after pleading guilty.

Refugio Jimenez Jr. pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure, the San Bernardino district attorney said on Friday. In addition to jail time, Jimenez will be responsible for 200 hours of community service and will serve two years felony probation.

"Resolving the case was never going to be a win," San Bernardino County district attorney Jason Anderson said in a press release. "The Defendants' reckless conduct had tremendous impact on land, properties, emergency response resources, the displacement of entire communities, and resulted in the tragic death of Forest Service Wildland Firefighter Charles Morton."

On Sept. 5, 2020, Jimenez and his wife Angelina Jimenez set off a pyrotechnic device to reveal the gender of their new baby with pink or blue smoke at a family gathering in El Dorado Ranch Park at the base of the San Bernardino mountains, around 22 miles outside of downtown San Bernardino.

The smoke ignited the surrounding dry brush and sparked a fire that burned through 22,000 acres of land, according to the district attorney. The couple tried in vain to put out the fire on their own before calling 911, and cooperated with officials who arrived on the scene.

An attorney for Jimenez did not immediately return a request for comment. The district attorney's office declined to comment further on the case.

More:Oregon timber company sues Forest Service for not putting out 2020 wildfire before blowup

18-year firefighting veteran killed in wildfire

Charles Morton, a U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighter who fought fires for 18 years, died during an operation carried out almost two weeks after the fire first broke out.

Crews from the San Bernardino County fire department and the Forest Service's Big Bear Hotshot Squad were attempting to control the blaze by setting off small fires. After a wind change unexpectedly spread the fire, Morton headed off on his own to scout the spot fires, according to a report on Morton's death released by the U.S. Forest Service. He died of his burns after he was trapped by the fire, and his body was recovered that night.

Morton, 39, joined the Fire Service in 2007 and worked for the Front Country and Mountaintop ranger districts, the Mill Creek Interagency Hotshots, Engine 31, Engine 19, before he joined the Big Bear Interagency Hotshots, according to the Palm Springs Desert Sun, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Hotshot crews, comprised of around 20 firefighters, fight the most challenging parts of large wildland fires.

Wife sentenced to community service, one year probation

Angelina Jimenez pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of recklessly causing fire to property of another, and was sentenced to 400 hours of community service and one year of summary probation, according to the district attorney. The couple must also pay $1,789,972 in victims' restitution fees.

The pair initially pleaded not guilty after they were indicted on more than 30 charges by a grand jury in July of 2021, according to the Victorville Daily Press, part of the USA TODAY Network. They were released on recognizance, even though prosecutors asked the judge to hold them on $50,000 bail.

On the third anniversary of the fire last September, the Fire Service filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the smoke bombs that set off the fire, claiming the devices are illegal in the state of California.

The fire injured 13 people, including two firefighters. It spread across 36 square miles and damaged 20 buildings, including five homes, and forced hundreds of residents to evacuate across the San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The Fire Service said the blaze was finally contained on Nov. 16.

More than 8,600 fires burned across California that year, destroying more than 11,000 structures and killing 33 people, according to CalFire. The year saw a record two million acres of land torched across the state.

Contributing: Associated Press

Cybele Mayes-Osterman is a breaking news reporter for USA Today. Reach her on email at cmayesosterman@usatoday.com. Follow her on X @CybeleMO.

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