A former Utah Highway Patrol officer and fire chief has been charged with starting the Maeser Highway Fire, which in June burned about 1,000 acres and forced evacuations in eastern Utah.
Rex Olsen, 37, was charged Tuesday by the Utah Attorney General’s Office with arson, a second-degree felony, and with a violation of wildland fire prevention, a class B misdemeanor.
The charges come after an investigation by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands. The Utah Department of Public Safety conducted its own investigation of Olsen in late June and fired him July 1, a spokeswoman said.
Court records state the fire was started using a cigarette and a match. The cigarette acted as a “timed fuse,” wrote Jason Curry, an investigator with the Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands.
“I located and reviewed video evidence at a local gas station that showed Rex Olsen purchasing the type of cigarette used at the scene to start the fire,” Curry wrote.
“I also obtained GPS based location data from Olsen’s patrol car that showed he was in the area where the fire began at the time the ignition device was placed and the fire was started,” Curry stated.
According to the investigator, Olsen acknowledged he had started the fire, and “did so because he wanted to feel the excitement of it.”
Olsen also served as fire chief of Neola for several years, according to previous news reports. The small Duchesne County town is about 25 miles west of Maeser, where the blaze started.
Marissa Cote, a spokeswoman with the Department of Public Safety, said an internal investigation into Olsen’s actions began June 21. On June 30, he was placed on administrative leave, and the next day he was fired, she said.
“Throughout the investigation, the Department of Public Safety has worked closely with investigators and will continue to do so,” Cote wrote in an emailed statement. ”We regret when incidents happen involving our personnel which reflect negatively on our department.”
Olsen first worked for UHP from 2004 to 2012, when he left voluntarily to work in the private sector, Cote said. He was rehired a year ago.
Olsen lives in Roosevelt, according to public records. An attorney was not listed in court records, and a phone number for Olsen could not be located.
The fire burned through hundreds of acres of sagebrush and grass. It caused residents of a subdivision to evacuate, though it did not destroy any structures. The blaze also triggered a closure of State Route 121 for several hours.
The Attorney General said the cost of fighting the fire topped $800,000.
If Olsen is convicted, the felony arson charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Olsen also faces a maximum jail sentence of six months for the misdemeanor charge.