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ANTELOPE ISLAND BLAZE THREATENS TO DESTROY GRASSLAND VITAL TO BUFFALO

Some 8,000 acres burned out of control Saturday night as fire officials attempted to send extra crews by boat to fight the blaze that threatened to destroy grasslands key to a state buffalo herd.

According to Jay Nethercott, with the Interagency Fire Center, the blaze was started by lightning at about 4 p.m. on the south end of the island. But the first group of firefighters was not sent to the blaze until about 7 p.m.Smoke was visible to most areas in Davis County during the evening as the blaze quickly spread across dry grassland, including areas of steep island terrain.

The Antelope Island blaze is the first major fire of what officials have said could be a long, hot fire-prone summer despite above-normal rain during May.

By 10 p.m., 40 men from the Utah State Prison's "Flamingos" fire crew were trying to dig trenches with shovels around the fire. More firefighters were being called up to control the fire, which officials originally said had blackened only 400 acres.

"Right now the situation is chaotic," said Nethercott as he attempted to coordinate fire operations late Saturday.

Since rising waters of the Great Salt Lake had inundated a causeway to the island in June 1983, the firefighters were transported to the island by boat. The first group was dispatched at 7 p.m.

The fire was located on the south end of the 28,022-acre island and may threaten a ranch in the area, said Nethercott. The ranch was once privately owned, but now the entire island is owned by the state.

The island is home to a buffalo herd as well as state park facilities located on a 2,000-acre state park on the northern tip of the island. In November, during an annual roundup, state officials reported that the buffalo herd had grown to more than 400.

Nethercott said a key concern is grass on the island that is a food source for the buffalo.

Along with the State Prison crew, crews from the U.S. Forest Service and Davis County Search and Rescue were involved in fighting the fire.