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Ex-firefighter accused of starting deadly California blaze that destroyed 60 homes

Arrested ex-firefighter Zane Wallace Peterson, 29, seen in a photo taken Tuesday by the Shasta County, Calif., Sheriff's Department. Shasta County Sheriff / AP

A former firefighter deliberately started a deadly blaze that destroyed dozens of homes in early September, California authorities alleged Wednesday.

Zane Peterson, 29, was taken into custody at his parents' home on Tuesday on suspicion of murder and arson in connection with the so-called Clover Fire, Captain Scott McLean of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told Reuters.

More than 1,500 firefighters responded to the Clover Fire at the height of the incident, which cost $7.3 million to control, CAL FIRE said in a statement announcing charges against Peterson.

The fire burned 8,073 acres, destroying 60 homes and threatening more than 500 others. It took seven days to be brought under control.

Peterson, of Happy Valley, Calif., entered a plea of not guilty during his first appearance in Shasta County Superior Court late Wednesday, according to the Redding Record Searchlight newspaper.

Chelsea Henry, daughter of 55-year-old Brian Henry who died in the fire, attended the hearing along with his mother, the newspaper reported. It said she was visibly shaken, holding a photo of her and her father together when she was a little girl, after catching her first fish.

Peterson faces up to 25 years in prison for the murder charge and 90 years behind bars for multiple arson charges.

Jeremy Ward, captain of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), seen in September investigating the Clover Fire in Happy Valley, California. Max Whittaker / Reuters, file

"This is a significant arson arrest for CAL FIRE, Shasta County, and the residents who endured the Clover Fire and suffered losses," CAL FIRE Unit Chief Mike Hebrard said in the statement. "The tragic loss of life and so many homes at the hands of an intentional fire is a heinous act."

Peterson, who lived in the rural community of Happy Valley, where the fire began, is a former forestry technician and fire engine operator with the Mendocino National Forest, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Brenda Kendrix told Reuters.

Peterson worked for the service between May 2005 and October 2012, Kendrix said.

In addition to the Clover Fire, Peterson is suspected of intentionally setting six vegetation fires in recent months, Reuters reported.

Reuters contributed to this report.