The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland homeowner uses smoke to battle snakes, burns down house

No humans were hurt. The fate of the snakes is unknown.

A homeowner in the Dickerson area tried to get rid of snakes using smoke but started a fire that caused $1 million in damage, fire officials said. (Montgomery County Fire)

Part of the homeowner’s plan — a decidedly small part — made sense. Snakes have a great sense of smell, experts say, and the odor of smoke, in theory, could prompt them to slither off.

Beyond that, the idea of setting a series of small fires in a residential basement to drive out a snake infestation went horribly wrong. The smoke led to flames that led to a massive fire that destroyed a million dollar home in Maryland.

Officials in Montgomery County late Thursday revealed the unusual cause of the Nov. 23 blaze along Big Woods Road in the relatively spread-out northwestern part of the county. Investigators do not believe open flames were part of the objective. Rather, the Dickerson-area homeowner started the fires in smoke-emitting metal containers, fire officials said.

“That’s not a technique I was familiar with,” said local wildlife biologist Dan Rauch. “I certainly recommend something else for dealing with snakes — starting with calling a professional.”

No one was home when the fire broke out. Seventy-five firefighters were needed to put it out. No humans were hurt.

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A full accounting of the snakes remains unknown.

Pete Piringer, a spokesman for Montgomery’s Fire and Rescue Service, said the reptiles were described to fire investigators as “black snakes,” and there’d been “a lot of them” in the house.

The remains of only one snake — its skin — were found in the ashes. One snake was found alive.

“He came out of the foundation,” Piringer said.

Firefighters apprehended this snake and released it into nearby woods. The rest of the snakes were destroyed, hidden by the debris or had slithered away.

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Efforts to reach the homeowner Friday were not successful. The secluded home, surrounded by trees, sits a half-mile back from Big Woods Road. Snakes settling into basements was not unheard of, especially given the colder weather.

Wildlife experts like Rauch said snakes don’t go into hibernation like warm-blooded animals do, but instead enter a state of “brumation” — basically a less-knocked out form of hibernation for the coldblooded.

Snakes slow down, become less active and “get together and use their body heat to survive the winter,” Rauch said.

Two appealing spots for them to carry this out: home foundations and basements, accessed by slithering through holes and crevices.

“The more that are in there, the more body-heat they share,” Rauch said. “They just ride out the cold season and come back out in spring.”

He suspected the snakes in the home were either garter snakes or Eastern ratsnakes common to the Washington region.

The infestation in the home was such that at least one month ago a tenant who lived there tried the same smoke-out technique, Piringer said. After that person moved out, the homeowner was in the process of moving back in when he tried the smoke eradication.

The homeowner apparently set up the smoke devices on Nov. 23, figured everything was working as planned, and left the home around 8 p.m., fire officials said.

“It’s likely the homeowner thought he was in the process of smoking out the snakes,” Piringer said.

But the coals were too near combustibles.

“It didn’t go as planned,” Piringer said.

Two hours later, the fire department got a call from a neighbor who reported seeing something on fire through the woods on the large-scale properties, according to Piringer.

A snake swallowed a golf ball and was left for dead. It’s joining several rescued animals returning to the wild.

While snakes do have a great sense of smell, given the recent cold temperatures of Maryland, smoke probably wouldn’t haven’t prompted much movement in the snakes because they are in a state of essentially deep rest, notes Cal Poly professor Emily Taylor.

“They’d be very sluggish,” Taylor said.

J.D. Kleopfer, Virginia’s state herpetologist, said snakes use the flicking of their tongues to smell. “If they get a whiff of smoke they’ll try to go underground or try to escape, get away or leave the area,” he said. But he cautioned that it’s only temporary. “They’ll come back,” he said.

Kleopfer said he’d never heard of anyone trying to smoke out snakes inside a home. “I don’t recommend doing it,” he said

Fire officials cautioned that no one should try to eradicate snakes from their homes using smoke. If you encounter wildlife, officials advised calling wildlife experts or an exterminator before trying any home remedies.

Piringer said the man’s home was “totally ruined.”

Montgomery County fire investigators determined the fire to be accidental with no suspected foul play. The matter has been turned over to the homeowner’s insurance company