How a Snake-Eating Hawk Started a Huge Montana Wildfire

Volunteer firefighter Kyra Vanisko found the fire-starting hawk with its prey still in its talons. Kyra Vanisko

Updated | Earlier this week, a fire blazed through about 40 acres of Montana grassland. For about an hour, the flames burned across the dry landscape in the northern part of the state, about 155 miles south of the Canadian border. The cause was a mystery until a volunteer firefighter finally found the crisped culprit. When she found the burned body of a hawk clutching a snake, she knew she'd found the spark.

Said firefighter, Kyra Vanisko, of the Black Eagle Volunteer Fire Department, was "mopping up hot spots" in the scorched grassland when she found the hawk by a power pole. ""We had been chasing that 40-acre grass fire for a while," Vanisko told Newsweek. "We had no idea what caused the fire, so finding the cause by accident was a pleasant surprise."

How exactly did the hungry hawk start the conflagration? The catalyst, explains EarthTouchNews, was power lines. Birds sitting on these lines don't get electrocuted, because they aren't connected to the ground. Same goes for squirrels or other small animals that use power lines as a byway. But touch two lines at a time and the animals become electrocuted.

Some birds do have a wingspan wide enough to touch two power lines at once. But that's not what happened in Montana. The problem there was that the bird was holding some very wriggly prey: a snake, to be specific. The burned reptile was found still clutched by the talons of the dead hawk.

"It’s just cooked. Fell off the power pole and started the fire," firefighter Kyra Vanish said on Facebook. Kyra Vanisko

Dave Lee, acting assistant chief with the Black Eagle Fire Department, said he was fairly certain that this predator-and-prey duo was responsible for the fire. "A dead hawk was found burned, and it had contacted the power lines," said Lee. Both the snake and the bird had been electrocuted, indicating that both had touched the charged lines.

Sparks from the electrocuted animals falling to the ground were enough to kindle a fire in this parched landscape. "Thankfully everyone (except for the hawk and snake) is okay," Vanisko said on Facebook. She was not able to identify the species of the hawk. "He's a crispy critter," she told the Great Falls Tribune. According to EarthTouchNews, the firefighters caught some flack for not rescuing the hawk and snake. But, says Vanisko, they were already "very dead."

The Montana blaze wasn't the first to be started by a snake-toting raptor. In 2015, fire rescue workers in San Diego reported that the same pairing had started a fire in La Jolla, California. Power outages from animals shocked by power lines are also not uncommon. Vanisko has seen a fire started by a magpie, and several in the same area caused by squirrels.

This most recent wildfire stood out not only because of its unusual cause but because of the challenge it posed to Vanisko and her fellow volunteers. "This particular fire kicked our butts because of the location," she says. Hills and coulees made extinguishing it difficult, as did the fact that it was in an old city landfill with burning trash underneath the soil.

The event and resulting photographs also brought some much-needed joy to the firefighting team. Four days earlier, the chief of the volunteer department died. "This goofy picture provided a bit of comic relief when we needed it," says Vanisko.

This story has been updated with additional information about the fire from Kyra Vanisko.