Dave Lee, acting assistant chief of the Black Eagle Fire Department, says he has a pretty good idea of what caused a fire that burned 40 acres in Black Eagle Wednesday.
It wasn't lightning.
It wasn't farm equipment.
It wasn't arson.
"A dead hawk was found burned and it had contacted the power lines," Lee said. "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.
Electrocuted squirrel ignites small fire at Anaconda Hills
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 it's 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 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," Larcombe said. "But this is my first experience with a hawk-snake combination."
During an outage in the Helena 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.
Fire departments were notified of the fire at about 11 a.m.
It burned in grassland on property that once served as a landfill off of Rainbow Dam Road.
Firefighters from Black Eagle, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana Air National Guard, Sand Coulee, Gore Hill and Ulm flew to the scene.
“It was running pretty good. It was spreading,” Lee said. “We got it stopped before it crossed the coulee and got into stubble.”
A third alarm was requested because of the great deal of smoke that was visible and the blaze was difficult to get to.
“There’s no public road and it was just in rough terrain, a lot of dips and coulees,” Lee said.
Five or six power poles were damaged.
With conditions so dry, the fire spread quickly.
If the fire would have continued past the coulee where it was stopped, it would have reached a power company switch yard, Lee said.