REDDING (AP) — A former firefighter pleaded not guilty Wednesday to murder and several arson charges in connection with a wildfire that killed one person and destroyed dozens of structures in rural Northern California.
Zane Wallace Peterson, 29, of Happy Valley, entered his plea in Shasta County Superior Court, one day after he was arrested on allegations he started two fires that turned into the massive Clover Fire in Shasta County.
Peterson's arrest came after three months of investigation, said state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Scott McLean. Peterson is also accused of starting six other fires since September.
He faces hundreds of charges related to the fires, including arson causing great bodily injury, and arson of inhabited dwellings, said Shasta County Senior Deputy District Attorney Ben Hanna.
Peterson is being held on $3 million bail and is due back in court on Jan. 2. He was represented Wednesday by a public defender, Hanna said.
McLean said the case is still ongoing.
"There's still more work to be done on our part to make sure this comes to a positive conclusion," he said. He declined to go into more specifics about the case, including a motive, citing the ongoing investigation.
The Clover Fire in early September charred nearly 13 square miles, destroyed 68 homes and 128 other structures.
The fire also has been blamed for the death Brian Stanley Henry, 56, whose body was found inside a motor home destroyed by flames in the community of Igo, about 150 miles north of Sacramento.
The blaze was fanned by gusty winds and spread at about 500 acres an hour at its peak. More than 1,500 firefighters battled the fire that cost more than $7 million to fight. It took about a week to contain.
"This is a significant arson arrest for CAL FIRE, Shasta County, and the residents who endured the Clover Fire and suffered losses. The tragic loss of life and so many homes at the hands of an intentional fire is a heinous act," Doug Wenham, a CalFire regional chief, said Tuesday.
Hanna said Peterson was a former firefighter. Records kept by the U.S. Forest Service show Peterson worked for the Mendocino National Forest at one time, according to the Record Searchlight of Redding (http://bit.ly/1bQvw9a ).
Peterson, however, had not been employed by the forest service for more than a year, said Stanton Florea, spokesman for the Pacific Southwest region.
If convicted, Peterson faces a 25 years to life sentence for the murder charge and 90 years for the arson charges, Hanna said.
A call placed to a number for Peterson was not immediately returned Wednesday.