A Utah man has been rescued from the Alaskan wilderness approximately three weeks after the fire that burned his home to the ground and killed his dog left him without much food, clothing, or shelter.
Tyson Steele, 30, was found among the rubble of his remote homestead in the Susitna Valley on the morning of Jan.9, 2020, according to a news release from the Alaska State Troopers, after friends asked authorities to perform a welfare check after not hearing from him.
In aerial footage shared by the troopers, Tyson steps out among the snow-covered remains of his home, waving to the troopers in a helicopter, a large “SOS” carved out of the snow behind him.
In the weeks after the fire, Steele said, he survived on the remnants of canned rations and peanut butter, sleeping in a snow cave, and makeshift shelter that he built around his wood stove.
The Fire Took Almost Everything—Including His Dog
Steele had been living on his homestead, about 20 miles from Skwentna, since September, he told state troopers. He described his home as a Quonset hut—a lightweight frame, covered in plastic tarps—that he bought from a Vietnam veteran.
He admitted to the troopers that the fire resulted from a “hasty” mistake. In a hurry to get a fire started, he stuck a large piece of cardboard into his wood stove. He believes a piece of the flaming cardboard went out of the chimney and landed on the roof.
Steele woke up in the middle of the night on either Dec. 17 or 18—he couldn’t recall the exact date, troopers said—and heard melting plastic coming from the roof. After Steele stepped outside, he said, “I just see that the whole roof’s on fire.”
The hut, Steele told the troopers, “goes up into flames faster than, like, I can even imagine.”
He started grabbing everything he could, including blankets and a rifle but his real priority was his 6-year-old chocolate lab, Phil.
He ordered Phil outside, and when he jumped off the bed, Steele assumed he’d left the house.
But when Steele went outside, he heard Phil howling—inside. “And I thought he was not inside,” he said.
“I was hysterical … I have no words for what sorrow; it was just, just a scream,” Steele told the troopers. “Just a visceral—not angry, not sad, just like, that’s all I could express—just scream.”
Writing SOS in the Snow
Steele didn’t have much time to mourn, though, since he needed a survival plan, he said.
He didn’t know enough about the surrounding area, including which of the many waterways in the area would be frozen over enough to cross, Steele told the troopers.
He gathered the food that survived the fire—canned goods, some beans and peanut butter, and figured he had enough food to have two cans a day for a month. But a lot of the food had popped open in the heat of the blaze, he said, and mixed with the smoke of his burning hut.
“So it tastes like my home, just burning.”
Steele had an old phone that he’d been using to check in with friends and family, but authorities said it was lost in the fire. So he hoped someone would call for a welfare check after they hadn’t heard from him. If someone hadn’t come by Day 35, he’d set out.
In the meantime, Steele slept in a snow cave before building a better shelter, using tarps and scrap lumber. He made the SOS signal in the snow, tracing it with the ash from the fire to make it stand out, he said.
It was so cold, he said, that his urine would freeze in a bucket by the fire after just a few minutes.
Finally, about 20 days after the fire, Steele saw the Alaska State Troopers’ helicopter above him.
Pilot Cliff Gilliland and Tactical Flight Officer Trooper Zac Johnson rescued him, the agency said. They got him a shower and brought him a meal from McDonald’s.
Now Steele’s planning on going home to Salt Lake City, where his family lives, he told the troopers.
“They’ve got a dog,” he said.