Tyson Steele has made national headlines recently, after his remote home outside Skwentna burned in December, leaving him alone and without communication for three weeks in sub-zero temperatures. He’s now in the Lower 48, but he plans to return soon.
Tyson Steele said that in the overnight hours of a cold December night, he woke up and stoked his wood stove. Since the fire had died down, he used a piece of cardboard to start it back up, then went back to bed when the fire was going again. Unbeknownst to him at the time, an ember from the stove landed on the roof, which was mostly made of greenhouse plastic sheeting, and started a structure fire.
“The spark lands, and it ignites the plastic. I don’t know that yet, until plastic fire starts dripping through the roof,” he said.
Steele says he didn’t panic at that point. Assuming it was a creosote fire in the chimney, he put snow in the stove, hoping the steam would put it out. On his second trip, he noticed the problem was much worse than he initially thought.
“The whole roof above my room is on fire, and, at that point, I knew there was…less than a minute to react,” he said.
Realizing time was running short, Steele says he thought of the two things many Alaskans would: cold weather gear and his dog, Phil.
“I go to my bed. I throw a bunch of blankets and sleeping bags on the bed, roll it in a blank it, hoist it over my shoulder, and urge my dog off the bed,” he said.
Steele says his dog was huddling away from the flames, but eventually got off the bed. He lost sight of Phil while making his escape from the house as the roof began to collapse. He was able to make a return trip to retrieve a gun that was not yet in the flames. That’s when he made a terrible discovery: Phil was still inside. Steele says that’s when panic set in. He knew there was no way to get his only companion out of the burning house.
“The fire spread. I have to leave. I have no choice. I have my gun, but I have no bullets, because they’re on fire and exploding. It’s like a war zone,” he said.
The loss of his dog left Steele stunned, and he says he just sat in the snow for a little while. Soon, though, he realized he needed to get to work if he was going to save what was left of his food. After hours of shoveling snow onto the remains of his home, however, the fire refused to go out.
“It just seemed hopeless in a lot of ways, because it just kept igniting. I’d cover the entire thing with snow…and it felt like the fire was out, and it would reignite,” he said.
Eventually, the fire did go out, and Steele was able to salvage some of the canned goods that were part of his two-year supply of food. With some quick rationing math, he figured he could eat for thirty-five days. Steele had been calling his family in Utah about once a week, but his phone, along with an inReach device and a VHF radio, had burned. He estimated that his family would start making phone calls if they didn’t hear from him by New Year’s Day.
With food to last well past then, he worked to address a bigger problem: Temperatures at the time were dropping past thirty degrees below zero, and Steele had lost his shelter. For the first couple of nights, he slept in a snow cave. Over the course of six days, with only gardening gloves to wear, he set to work using materials on his property that survived the fire to build a makeshift shelter one nail at a time.
With the shelter up, Steele says the best way to keep warm and thaw out his cans of food was the very same wood stove where the fire that took his house and his dog began.
“It’s actually a pretty strange love-hate relationship with the stove, because it started my house on fire….But I had to keep this thing that did this horrible thing to me, I had to keep it going,” he said.
Life continued that way through the first week of January. While Steele was expecting someone to eventually come for him, he assumed it would be his usual pilot in a fixed-wing aircraft. He says he was a little surprised, and a bit anxious, when he heard a helicopter approaching.
“When I heard it was a chopper, I realized this is a bigger deal….I was just happy to see a friendly face,” he said.
The story of Steele’s surviving in the harsh climate of an Alaska winter alone in the wilderness has spread throughout the country. He says it has resulted in comparisons to Christopher McCandless, whose story was made famous by the book and film “Into the Wild.” Steele says he doesn’t like that comparison because, unlike McCandless, he was supplied and prepared and, as a result, survived.
For now, Steele is with his family in Utah. He managed to avoid frostbite and serious injury, and says his time in Alaska is not over. He plans to return and rebuild.