Two new parents in California could find themselves behind bars for the entirety of their infant’s childhood after authorities charged them in connection with a deadly wildfire sparked by their gender-reveal stunt.
Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez pleaded not guilty on Monday to 30 charges related to the El Dorado Fire, which scorched over 89 square kilometres of land in southern California last fall. The wildfire killed one firefighter, injured two others, destroyed more than a dozen buildings and caused roughly $8 million in damage.
Fire officials have said the wildfire started with a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device used during a gender-reveal party” in Yucaipa, Calif., on Sept 5, 2020.
The couple now faces felony charges of 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 misdemeanour counts of recklessly causing fire to the property of another. The maximum penalty for these charges is 20 years in prison.
“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,” said San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson at a Tuesday news conference. “That encompasses a lot of not only emotion but damage, both financially and psychologically.”
Firefighter Charlie Morton died on Sept. 17, 2020, after he became trapped in the wildfire. Morton, 39, was a squad boss with the Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Crew, and his job was to venture into the fire to coordinate strategy with the rest of his crew.
“He wouldn’t have been out there if this hadn’t started in the first place,” Anderson said on Tuesday. “He’s fighting a fire that was started because of a smoke bomb. That’s the only reason he’s there.”
The Jimenezes pleaded not guilty on Monday and have since been released on bail. Their lawyer declined several outlets’ requests for comment.
Gender reveal parties started in 2008 and have become increasingly elaborate and dangerous in recent years, as parents have sought novel ways to announce the sex of their incoming children. Early stunts involving pink or blue cake have given way to explosive devices using coloured powder and aircraft flyovers using pink or blue smoke, all in an effort to make a splash on social media.
These do-it-yourself stunts have had serious consequences in recent years.
A gender-reveal explosive triggered a minor earthquake earlier this year in New Hampshire, while similar stunts have ignited wildfires in Alberta and Arizona. The Arizona case led to the Sawmill fire that scored 182 square kilometres and caused $8 million in damage — an amount that the father was ordered to pay back in monthly instalments for the rest of his life.
A gender-reveal pipe bomb killed a grandmother-to-be in Iowa in 2019, and an expecting father died in an explosion earlier this year while building his own such device.
Additionally, two people died in a plane crash in Mexico earlier this year during a gender-reveal flyover.
Jenna Karvunidis, the blogger who launched the trend in 2008, has repeatedly said she regrets what she started and wants it to end.
Karvunidis shared one of these pleas on Sep. 7, 2020, when ash from the El Dorado Fire was falling around her California home.
“I’m getting a lot of hateful messages about the gender reveal party that set California on fire,” she tweeted. “Could we just stop having these stupid parties and the problem would solve itself?”