Firefighters in Montana have uncovered the cause of a fire that burned some 40 acres of grassland earlier this week. The blaze was sparked by a series of unfortunate events – involving a snake, two power lines and an accidental avian arsonist. 

The fire raged for an hour near Rainbow Dam Road in the town of Great Falls, and with the local landscape extremely dry at this time of year, it took the work of several crews to put out the flames. But it wasn't until officials spotted a dead hawk lying on the singed ground that the story came together. 

The toasted hawk was found still clutching its last meal. Image: Kyra Vanisko/Facebook

The flame-broiled bird was found still clutching a snake meal in its talons, and both animals showed signs of electrocution.

According to Kyra Vanisko of the Black Eagle Volunteer Fire Department, who was among the responders, the snake's wriggling tail likely struck a pair of power lines as the bird attempted to fly off with it. 

Some reports suggest it was the bird's flaming body that ignited the field and caused the fire, but in reality, the situation was rather less dramatic. 

"Sparks from the shock were sent to the ground, which is what caused the fire," Vanisko explained on Facebook. "Thankfully everyone (except for the hawk and snake) is okay."

Overhead power lines regularly get perching visits from the local wildlife without lethal consequences, so why did this one end in catastrophe for the raptor and its reptilian prey?

The lines can carry up to 700,000 volts (though 50,000-200,000 is more common) and push as much as 1,000 amps. (It's a misconception that all of them are protected by insulation.) Birds like starlings and other small animals can rest safely atop these power lines – but only if they touch one wire at a time.

"Birds don't get electrocuted when they are touching wires because they don't represent a path to ground, giving the electricity nowhere to go but back to the wire. If the bird happens to touch two wires at once, or a wire and a ground, they will get electrocuted," explains the team at Indiana Electric Cooperatives (IEC). 

Touching one line and an adjacent pole is equally hazardous for this reason.

"They only need two points!" says Vanisko. 

Images: Kyra Vanisko/Facebook
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Images: Kyra Vanisko/Facebook

Sadly, being scorched by power lines is a common threat for birds across the world, and particularly for large raptors, whose hefty meals tend to dangle in the air. Back in 2015, a fire in Southern California was also caused by a hawk-snake pair. Several years before that, a power outage in Missoula, Montana was caused by a fawn dangling in the lines. Experts suspect the baby deer was dropped by a bald eagle (which, yes, does happen).

Even without problematic prey, some raptors' impressive wings are broad enough to intersect multiple lines at once. Buzzards, red tailed hawks, eagles and geese have also been known to meet an electrically fiery end, and the same can be said for bushy-tailed mammals. "Squirrels cause fires all the time, too," says Vanisko.

Some commenters have criticised the firefighters for failing to save the hawk and snake, but Vanisko notes that these animals were "very dead" by the time they were found. (The shock likely killed them instantly.) That said, the duo is set to be preserved for display at the local fire station. 


Top header image: mollybob/Flickr