Couple Who Touched Off El Dorado Conflagration To Face 28 Of 29 Counts Against Them, Judge Rules

Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and his wife Angelina Renee Jimenez will go to trial on a total of 28 counts, including involuntary manslaughter, over their ill-advised use of a flammable device during a gender reveal celebration at El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa on September 5, 2020 that led to the ignition of what turned into the El Dorado fire, which raged out of control for 24 days, charring 22,680 acres, destroying five homes and damaging four others and resulting in the death of firefighter Charles Morton, who lost his life battling the blaze more than a week and a half after it started.
Originally, each was charged with the 29 counts, one felony count of PC 192(b), involuntary manslaughter; three felony charges of PC 452(a), arson that causes great bodily injury; four felony charges of PC 452(b), arson that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn and 22 misdemeanor charges of PC 452(d), unlawfully causing a fire of property. Michael A Scafiddi and Steven S. Mitchell, representing the Jimenezes, had asked Judge Ronald Christianson to dismiss all of the charges lodged against the couple, California Department of Corrections employees, based on Section 939.71 of the Penal Code, which applies to the contention that the prosecution is aware of exculpatory evidence that would exonerate the defendants. Christianson, however, found the prosecution had grounds for making those allegations and said the couple will need to present their case for innocence to a jury if they want to get out from underneath what they have been charged with.
Christianson did grant Scaffidi’s motion to dismiss one of the felony charges, PC 452(b), recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure.
The remainder of the case, entailing 28 charges each against the Jimenezes, remains intact.
On September 5, 2020, at approximately 10:23 a.m. the Jiminezes used a pyrotechnic device, referred to as a “smoke cannon” intended to release either blue or pink smoke to reveal the gender of an unborn child Angelina Jimenez was carrying. The couple had invited a number of friends and extended family members to El Dorado Park in Yucaipa to the event. The device lit dry grass beneath it.
A surveillance video from a camera at the park depicts several people, a number of them children, walking onto the grass at the edge of the park. An adult male is seen in the video lighting the device. Shortly thereafter, the dry grass and vegetation near the device is seen to ignite, and the video shows individuals scurrying in a futile effort at dousing the flames with water from water bottles. At the time the fire initiated, the temperature in Yucaipa had already reached at least 90 degrees, and would attain 104 degrees Fahrenheit later that afternoon.
The fire spread from the park to the north onto Yucaipa Ridge that separates Mountain Home Village and Forest Falls from the City of Yucaipa. After initially burning northward early on September 5, the fire circled back as it was pushed by inconsistently-directed winds, first east, then northward, taking at one point a substantial westwardly shift on the evening of Saturday, September 5, and on Sunday, September 6 moving south. The fire thus spread in four different directions.
Over 24 days, the fire consumed 22,680 acres in the Oak Glen/Yucaipa Ridge area and within the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area of the San Bernardino National Forest. Firefighting efforts, directed from from a command post established at Yucaipa Regional Park and involving 1,351 personnel, did manage to prevent the fire from moving into populated areas. As such, the conflagration raged into the area’s rustic canyons and, ultimately, the heavily wooded National Forest. Twenty mostly isolated structures, five of them homes, were burnt to the ground. Another four residences were significantly damaged.
On the twelfth day of the effort to control the fire, September 17, Charles Morton, a specialized “hot shot” fire suppression team commander with 14 years experience as a firefighter, was killed.
Hot shot crews are highly mobile and specially-skilled hand crews intended to be flexible with the migration of a fire, and are trained, conditioned, equipped and qualified to be utilized in combating wildland fires. Hotshots are often employed in using shovels and other tools in seeking to reroute the direction of a fire’s progression, often on very difficult terrain at locations remote from the main body of firefighters in a given area. The crews function without water or hoses. At sometime around 10 p.m. in the evening of September 17, while Morton was with others “engaged in fire suppression operations,” according to the California Department of Forestry, a windshift resulted in flames overrunning him.
Another 13 firefighters were injured throughout the El Dorado Fire ordeal.
The fire, which required 60 miles of fire lines to suppress and ranged from a minimum elevation of 3,030 feet to a maximum of 10,640 feet, forced the evacuations of Oak Glen, north Yucaipa, Mountain Home Village, Forest Falls, and Angelus Oaks.
The firefighting effort was manpower intensive and extremely costly. The 1,351 firefighters involved included those functioning under two interagency incident management teams rotated into place throughout the operation, those being California Interagency Management Team 11, supervised by Commander Chris Fogle, and California Interagency Management Team 13, led by Incident Commander Mike Wakoski. There were 17 hand crews working the fire lines, 177 fire engines, 20 water tenders, 17 bulldozers, and 10 helicopters. Numerous fixed-wing tankers were brought to bear in the effort, including a DC-10, which engaged in aerial fire-retardant drops.
Three Canadian Fire Bosses and a single-engine air tanker water scooper, operating from a base at Big Bear Airport & Lake, were also used for the first time in Southern California in the effort against the El Dorado conflagration.
The fire was not considered contained until September 29.
The indictments of Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angelina Renee Jimenez were handed down in July 2021 after a grand jury heard from 34 witnesses during four days of testimony and reviewed 434 exhibits.
The Jimenezes’ attorneys, consisting of Michael A Scafiddi, Malalai Ramadan, Steven Mitchell and Steven Scott, are most concerned about the involuntary manslaughter charges. They maintain the couple should not be held to account for Morton’s death, as the husband and wife could have in no way reasonably foreseen such an occurrence as what befell the firefighter from their action.
According to Judge Chritianson, however, intent is not a necessary element of involuntary manslaughter
The maximum sentence for someone convicted of involuntary manslaughter under California law is four years. Under Penal Code 452(a), unlawfully causing a fire that causes great bodily injury, is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four or six years, or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, or by a fine, or by both such imprisonment and fine.
Under Penal Code 452(b) unlawfully causing a fire that causes an inhabited structure or inhabited property to burn is a felony punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three or four years, or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, or by a fine, or by both such imprisonment and fine.
Under Penal Code 452(d), causing a fire of property, is a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than six months in the county jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Under Penal Code 452 PC generally, it is a crime for a person to recklessly set fire to or burn any structure, forest land, or property.
Under the law and case law, “reckless” is defined and a person is said to have acted “recklessly” if he is aware that his actions could present a substantial and unjustifiable risk of causing a fire, he ignores that risk, and doing so can be demonstrated as a gross deviation from how a reasonable person would act in the same situation. In legal terms, “reckless” is a high standard and is considered more serious than carelessness or simple negligence. Something truly accidental does not meet the reckless or recklessness standard. If, however, a complete disregard for safety can be demonstrated, an individual’s acts can be established as reckless. It would appear that Scafiddi and Mitchell are now purposed to show that the ignition of the El Dorado Fire was an “accident.”
One of the prosecutors on the case, Deputy District Attorney Lisa Crane, has asserted that the Jimenezes knew, or should have known, that setting off the “smoke cannon” on a 103-degree day with low humidity in a setting that included dry brush presented an unacceptable risk.
The Jimenezes are on leave from their jobs as correctional officers at California Institution for Women in Chino but are not in custody as the charges against them are pending.

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