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VERNAL — A former Utah Highway Patrol trooper has been charged with purposely starting an eastern Utah forest fire with a cigarette in June "because he wanted to feel the excitement of it."
The Utah Attorney General's Office on Tuesday charged Rex Olsen, 37, with arson, a second-degree felony, and violating wildfire prevention restrictions, a misdemeanor. The allegations also cost him his job.
The 1,000-acre fire forced temporary evacuations of about 150 homes on June 9. It cost $800,000 in damage and firefighting efforts, and briefly closed state Route 121 in Uintah County. No injuries were reported.
It was not clear if Olsen, previously the fire chief of Neola in Duchesne County, had an attorney.
State investigators say Olsen told them he started the fire when he was by himself near Maeser on June 9, and that "he did so because he wanted to feel the excitement of it," according to a probable cause statement.
A partially burned cigarette and match — a combination sometimes used as a delayed-ignition device — were found at the fire and led investigators to Olsen, according to the statement.
Video footage from a nearby gas station showed the trooper buying the same kind of cigarette found at the fire, wrote Jason Curry, an investigator with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Court documents do not specify the type of cigarette.
GPS data from the trooper's patrol car also showed he was in the area at the time the fire started.
State public safety managers learned about the criminal investigation on June 21 and launched their own probe the same day, Utah Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Marissa Cote said in an email. Olsen was fired July 1, a day after he was put on administrative leave.
Cote said the DPS worked closely with investigators and that the agency regrets incidents involving employees that reflect negatively on the department.
Olsen faces up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 for the felony charge, and a maximum jail sentence of six months for the misdemeanor.