GREAT FALLS, Mont. (USA TODAY) — The acting assistant chief of a Montana fire department has a pretty good idea what caused a fire that burned 40 acres Wednesday.
It wasn't lightning.
It wasn't farm equipment.
It wasn't arson.
It was a hungry hawk with dinner in its claws.
"A dead hawk was found burned and it had contacted the power lines," said Dave Lee of the Black Eagle (Mont.) Fire Department. "The amazing thing is it still had a small snake gripped in its talons."
It isn't unusual for birds and squirrels to cause fires, Lee said.
A bird catching a snake before meeting its fiery end is.
"It was just awesome," said firefighter Kyra Vanisko, who snapped a photo of the charred bird underneath a power pole. "I wasn't expecting to find a hawk with a snake in its claws still."
The bird was toast, but its talons survived, and they remained gripped around a foot-long bull snake even in death.
Because of its condition, Vanisko couldn't make out the species of hawk, which was about the size of a small cat.
“He’s a crispy critter,” she said.
Power outages caused by animals and birds in Montana are not unusual, said Butch Larcombe, a spokesman for NorthWestern Energy.
"I have dealt with outages caused by squirrels, beavers, geese, raptors and even snakes," said Larcombe. "But this is my first experience with a hawk-snake combination."
During an outage in the Helena, Mont., area about six years ago, a deer fawn was found in a power line after an outage, Larcombe said.
NorthWestern suspects that an eagle may have snatched the fawn from the ground and dropped it on the power line while in flight.
The collision between bird and power line in Black Eagle didn't cause a power outage, but it did cause a fire, Lee said.
The hawk’s wing span may have contacted the power line, generating sparks that started the fire, he said.
The fire burned in grassland that was once a landfill.
“It was running pretty good. It was spreading,” Lee said. “We got it stopped before it crossed the coulee and got into stubble,” which is stalks of plants left sticking out of the ground.
Five or six power poles were damaged. The dry conditions helped spread the fire quickly.
If it hadn't been contained, the fire would have reached a power company switch yard, Lee said.