Manslaughter charge continues against couple in El Dorado Fire

The case against a couple accused of starting the 2020 El Dorado Fire with a gender-reveal device will move forward after one of four felony counts was dropped by a Superior Court judge in San Bernardino, California.

As reported by Brian Rokos of the Southern California News Group, one of four property-damage felony charges against Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and wife Angelina Renee Jimenez was dismissed; a felony involuntary manslaughter charge remains along with three felony counts of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury and and three felony counts of recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure.

El Dorado Fire
El Dorado Fire, photo by Jeff Zimmerman Sept. 5, 2020.

Attorneys for the Jimenezes argued that the fire was accidentally ignited by the smoky gender-reveal device and sought dismissal of the manslaughter charge. Rokos reported that the deputy county attorney argued that “the Jimenezes should have known better than to set off the smoky device on a 103-degree day with low humidity in a park containing extremely dry brush.”

If convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the Jimenezes could be sentenced to four years in prison. They are currently on leave from their jobs as California correctional officers.

Prior coverage in Wildfire Today of the “Narrative” and related reports on the fatality of a squad leader on the Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Crew highlighted the increasing risks and complicated processes in a comprehensive analyses. Charles ‘Charlie’ Morton died as he was scouting the fire alone on September 17, 2020 when it overran his location.

Excerpts from the reports included:

“In his September 24, 2020 testimony before Congress, John Phipps, the Forest Service’s Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry, stated “the system is not designed for this,” to illustrate the misalignment between the design of the wildland fire system and the reality that wildland fire responders routinely experience.”

“We continue to ask our wildland fire responders to save communities that are becoming increasingly unsavable. At what point do we declare communities without any semblance of defensible space not worth the risk of trying to save under extreme fire behavior conditions?”

As Bill Gabbert wrote about the reports on their release, they were notable for their in-depth compilation of lessons as well as the suggestion “that perhaps firefighters (or forestry technicians) should be called ‘fire responders’ so they don’t ‘view fire as an enemy.’ Other than that many of their conclusions are very reasonable, even though most of them have been previously identified in various forms. But having so many of them listed in one fatality report is unique, and could be useful. Unless it just disappears into files like so many others.”

One lesson is being applied – to streamline Type 1 and Type 2 team classifications. Other lessons – such as identifying the risk of scouting and implementing tracking devices and drones – are not moving ahead as quickly.

Two California counties sue PG&E over Mosquito Fire

A lawsuit was filed January 18 against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. by El Dorado County and Placer County seeking damages related to the 2022 Mosquito Fire, which burned almost 77,000 acres over 50 days in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The two counties, along with the El Dorado Water Agency, Georgetown Divide Public Utilities District, and Georgetown Divide Fire Protection District, filed the lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court. The fire burned mostly on the Tahoe and El Dorado National Forests and caused evacuations of more than 11,000 people.

Mosquito Fire 09-13-22
An airtanker makes a retardant run over the Mosquito Fire after it jumped the American River and headed north toward Foresthill, California.   09-13-22 Inciweb photo.

The suit alleges that PG&E’s equipment caused the fire, which started on September 6 near the community of Foresthill, according to a report by CBS News.

“The lawsuit seeks to hold PG&E accountable and to help our community rebuild after this devastating fire,” said El Dorado County counsel David Livingston. The Mosquito Fire started near the Oxbow Reservoir at the Middle Fork American River, according to the Sacramento Bee, and it destroyed 78 structures, including dozens of homes in the Placer County community of Michigan Bluff and the El Dorado County town of Volcanoville. It was not contained till October 27.

Mosquito Fire Day #2
Extreme fire behavior on the second day produces a large column of smoke visible from Foresthill, California.
09-08-22 Inciweb photo

The county filed the lawsuit one day before PG&E officials were scheduled to appear in Shasta County Superior Court for a criminal case related to the 2020 Zogg Fire, which killed four people and which Cal Fire investigators have blamed on PG&E equipment. Shasta County prosecutors charged PG&E with four counts of involuntary manslaughter; the utility company in June pleaded not guilty.

The Mosquito Fire lawsuit follows a legal settlement earlier this week in which 10 public entities agreed to $24 million from PG&E for damages caused by the 2021 Dixie Fire, which started July 13 and burned over 963,300 acres across Plumas, Lassen, Butte, Shasta, and Tehama counties. Plaintiffs include the five counties, along with the City of Susanville, Plumas District Hospital, Chester Public Utility District, Honey Lake Valley Recreation Authority, and Herlong Public Utility District.

“Local government across the five affected counties came together to recover these significant funds to reimburse public and natural resources lost in the fire,” Gretchen Stuhr with Plumas County told The Plumas News. “The allocated portion of the settlement proceeds will in no way make the entities whole following the devastation caused by the Dixie and Fly Fires but will assist the County in its recovery.”