Firefighter accused in fatal arson fire pleads not guilty

Firefighter accused in fatal arson fire pleads not guilty

20 December 2013

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USA — A former wildland firefighter accused of igniting the Clover Fire in September entered a plea of not guilty during his first appearance Thursday in Shasta County Superior Court.

Zane Peterson, 29, of Happy Valley, is charged with 71 felony counts — including murder — in connection with the blaze that claimed one life while burning more than 8,000 acres, 60 homes and 130 other buildings in southwestern Shasta County.

Retired Superior Court Judge James Ruggiero set Peterson’s bail at $3 million, noting the fire caused an estimated $65 million damage and claimed a life.

The fire, which started near the intersections of Clear Creek and Cloverdale roads on Sept. 9, killed 55-year-old Brian Henry.

Henry’s daughter, Chelsea Henry, attended the hearing along with his mother and other family members.

The young woman clutched a photo of her and her father together when she was a little girl after catching her first fish.

Unable to hold back tears, she refuted claims her father refused to evacuate his house along Coal Pit Road, saying officials never asked him to leave.

She said he stayed because he was protecting his home and those of neighbors.

“God put me here to help others, kid,” she said her father told her shortly before his tragic death. “He lived that way all his life.”

She said her father was more than aware of the dangers of a forest fire, saying he was a former California Department of Forestry firefighter.

The Shasta County public defender’s office was appointed to represent her father’s accused killer.

Peterson is scheduled to return to Superior Court on Jan. 2 for the possible setting of a preliminary hearing.

That will give the deputy public defender assigned to represent Peterson sufficient time to go over what was described as the voluminous evidence in the case, which has been sealed by a court order.

Cal Fire Capt. Scott McLean Tuesday said Peterson was responsible for starting two fires that grew into the monstrous Clover Fire, which spread quickly in dry and windy conditions.

Cal Fire spent about $7.3 million to extinguish the fire, which was put out within a week, but not before claiming Henry’s life. Other residents drove through what was described as a wall of flames to escape.

Peterson was a former firefighter in the North State. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service for more than seven years.

Brenda Kendrix, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region, confirmed Peterson was employed by the federal agency from May 15, 2005, to Oct. 22, 2012, as a fire engine operator.

Reasons for his departure were unknown.

In early 2012 Peterson pleaded guilty to petty theft charges in Tehama County that stemmed from a complaint filed by the Forest Service, according to online court records. He was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay fines and restitution.

Records kept by the Forest Service show Peterson worked for the Mendocino National Forest during his career with the agency. He was based at the Grindstone Ranger District headquartered in Willows.

Kendrix had no information about his job performance.

Peterson has also been charged with starting six other fires from September through November this year.

He faces charges of murder, arson on forest lands, arson causing great bodily injury and arson of inhabited dwellings in connection with the Clover Fire.

Record Searchlight reporters Clay Duda and Jenny Espino contributed to this article.

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