The fire had already been burning for 12 days last September when 39-year-old firefighter Charles Morton was killed while trying to extinguish the blaze.
The inferno that ripped through San Bernardino National Forest, burning more than 20,000 acres and prompting widespread evacuations, was sparked, prosecutors say, when Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez tried to set off a smoke bomb to announce their baby's gender. Now the Southern California couple is facing manslaughter charges, San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson said in a Tuesday news conference.
"Obviously, he wouldn't have been out there if this [fire] hadn't started in the first place," Anderson said of Morton, a squad boss on the forest's Big Bear interagency hotshot crew.
The fire was one of several disasters connected to gender-reveal parties, in which parents announce their baby's sex during pregnancy. The practice has led to a fatal plane crash, partygoers' tragic deaths, other wildfires and brushfires, and one massive explosion that rocked a New Hampshire neighborhood and damaged homes.
The fire that allegedly started when the Jimenez family set off the smoke bomb in El Dorado Park, about 75 miles east of Los Angeles near Yucaipa, injured 13 people, including two more firefighters, and destroyed five homes and 15 other buildings. At its peak, more than 1,350 firefighters - including Morton - were tasked with trying to douse the blaze.
"I mean, he was fighting a fire that was started because of the smoke bomb," Anderson said, referring to Morton. "That's the only reason he was there."
In addition to the involuntary manslaughter charges, the Jimenezes also each face 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 fire-related misdemeanor counts.
The Jimenezes pleaded not guilty on Tuesday, Anderson said. The couple could not be reached for comment early Wednesday. It was not immediately clear who was representing the pair in court.
The fire started Sept. 5 when temperatures soared to 20 degrees above normal. The pyrotechnic device the couple used in the gender reveal ignited the dry grounds in the park, Anderson said. The fire quickly spread north to the Yucaipa Ridge.
The Jimenezes tried to extinguish the fire using water bottles before calling 911 to report it, officials said soon after the blaze erupted. The couple cooperated with investigators as the fire continued to spread.
Within two days, the fire burned through nearly 10,000 acres, forcing more than 20,000 people to evacuate.
Morton died Sept. 17 while trying to put out the fire. "It appears he was burned over by the fire and passed away," an incident report filed by the U.S. Forest Service concluded, according to an October story in the Los Angeles Times.
The fire burned for 23 days. At least six fire departments worked to extinguish it, and Anderson said it had a tremendous effect on the community.
"You're obviously dealing with lost lives, you're dealing with injured lives, and you're dealing with people's residences that were burned and their land that was burned," he said. "That encompasses a lot of not only emotion but damage - both financially and psychologically - in a way that many will never get back, particularly the Morton family."
The incident led blogger Jenna Myers Karvunidis, who popularized the gender-reveal party when she threw one to announce her oldest daughter's sex in 2008, to call for an end to the fad.
"Stop having these stupid parties," she wrote on social media last fall after the fire started. "For the love of God, stop burning things down."
The Jimenezes are due back in court on Sept. 15. The two could face several years in prison if convicted, Anderson said.
- - -
The Washington Post's Katie Shepherd contributed to this story.