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Utah man shares story of survival, dramatic rescue in Alaskan wild after losing home and dog to fire

Posted at 10:21 PM, Jan 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-14 00:21:42-05

NORTH SALT LAKE, Utah – A Utah man survived more than three weeks in the Alaskan wild after a fire claimed his homestead and pet; now, underweight and exhausted, he is sharing his story.

“I keep on getting about 20 [messages] at a time,” Tyson Steele said as he sat behind his computer.

“Sounds like it’s been a crazy, wild adventure,” he said as he read a message from a friend out loud. “I don’t think I can even keep up with them.”

Sitting in his parents’ North Salt Lake Home Monday afternoon, it’s hard to believe just a few days ago Tyson was in Susitna Valley, Alaska, stranded in a make-shift bunker.

A video shared by Alaskan troopers shows Tyson as he waves his arms in the air, standing alongside a tarp and a massive ‘SOS’ stomped into the snow.

For three months, Tyson called the remote area home accompanied only by his chocolate lab, Phil.

“It’s your only friend, it’s to listen to your conversations, and he’ll go follow you everywhere. He was my shadow,” Tyson said.

The two loved living in the humble dwellings, about 45 miles from any roads or people.

“I chop wood — that’s my heat. I get water from the river, and that’s my water,” said Tyson. “I live the direct, tangible survival.”

Their cabin was constructed of wood and a plastic tarp material — equipped with a wood-burning stove, battery system, electrical wiring and a variety of communication devices.

“I had planned for years and years and years, and I was more cautious than I could ever be,” Tyson said of his preparations.

But, on one late December night, their isolated paradise literally came crashing down.

“I mistakenly put a piece of cardboard in the wood stove to start it,” Tyson explained. “That spark of cardboard landed on the roof, which was made partially of plastic, it ignited and spread incredible fast, almost like gasoline.”

Tyson said he was getting ready for bed when the plastic ceiling started to drip, and the flames made their first appearance.

“I got a bucket of water, threw it on the ceiling, I got a fire extinguisher, it was old, and I pulled the pin and it just, did nothing,” Tyson said. “I went outside and threw some snow… it was spreading too fast at that point and I realized, it’s coming down.”

Tyson said at that moment the fire was growing even faster, so he started to grab everything he could, starting with blankets and a sleeping bag.

“I hoist that into a bag and put it over my shoulder, I urge my dog off the bed he gets off and disappears out of my site and I figure he’s okay,” said Tyson.

Tyson then ran outside and went to the other side of his homestead, that’s when he realized man’s best friend wasn’t there.

“I realize my dog is still inside the house,” Tyson said.

“I go in to try and save him and walls are collapsing, and the roof is collapsing in flames and I can’t get there,” Tyson continued, taking a moment to take a breath. “It was a very horrifying experience because he was in the fire, he was engulfed in flames and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Tyson said all he could do was scream.

“I basically laid down in the snow next to the cabin and just collapsed for a little bit, I don’t know how long,” said Tyson. “No logic, just shock and then I resurrected some semblance of myself and realized my food was all burning.”

Tyson worked until daylight came, shoveling snow onto the fire as quickly as he could – but it was too late, the snow did little to stop the blaze.

“It was an act of desperation,” said Tyson. “Every shovel full of snow would land on the fire and just, the fire would reignite.”

“The adrenaline was there, I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself in those instances, maybe I got down a couple of times, but it was, ‘Boom!’ I’ve got to think things through, and I’ve got to get ahead.”

Two things survived the flames. The first was a small supply of food, which he believes could last him 30 days – so long as he rationed the supply to only eat one can per day.

Tyson said the labels had burned off all the cans, some had even burst open. “Charred, gross, house-smoked food, just this plastic-y flavor, it was disgusting.”

Tyson called it ‘the mystery meal of the day’ – sometimes he would get chilies, other days he would open a can of green beans which he hates, or foods he was allergic to.

“The previous owner [of the cabin], he had a lot of food, pineapple and cream of mushroom soup… I hate mushrooms and I’m allergic to pineapple,” Tyson said now laughing at the irony. “Just various gross, disgusting food that had been smoked in the flames of my house, I got really hungry and lost a lot of weight, a good ten pounds.”

The other item that survived the fire, the stove that started it all.

“It caused a lot of panic, often. In fact, in the middle of the night, I think I’m reliving it all over again trying to get out of my sleeping bag really fast because a shot of flames cast some light on the wall,” Tyson said.

Tyson used the stove and a tarp to create a make-shift snow-bunker. Somewhere in the 8-10 day range, he stomped a large ‘SOS’ in the snow, in the hopes someone would come looking for him and see it.

“I poured ash around it to darken it so people would see it,” Tyson explained how he had to constantly recreate the symbol for help as the snow fell.

Tyson said he did his best to remain positive, knowing he had shelter, a heat source and at least some food.

“There were times I had to just appreciate the beauty around me, seeing the full moon or the Northern Lights, that’s a good sight… and it was around Christmas, it was a white Christmas, I sang some Christmas songs to myself.”

Knowing he had done what he could to set himself up, he waited.

Tyson said he had a ‘weekly check-in,’ but prior to the fire, had been having issues with his phone (which his family knew about).

“I knew that after Christmas, I wouldn’t reply for Christmas and people would be like, ‘He’s probably got problems,’ and they would just go with it and then at New Year’s, they would be concerned – New Year’s was probably the 2-week mark,” Tyson said.

Still, the days and weeks continued to pass.

“The hardest parts were toward the end probably, where I’m anticipating when someone might fly over,” Tyson said.

“I would wake up, ‘It could be today!’ Then I’d wake up the next day, ‘It could be today!’”

But, there was nothing and no one.

“I’m starting to think, okay the food is going down.”

Until one day, day 23 to be exact, the fight for survival came to an end.

“I knew it was for me, chopper rotors, you never hear choppers out there!”

Tyson returned to his parents’ home in Utah on Saturday feeling overwhelmed, tired, nutritionally weak and mentally exhausted.

“The hardest thing by far of anything is my dog, I still have dreams at night that he’s there or something like that,” Tyson said softly. “It’s going to be hard going back because I’m going to see signs of my dog, I’m going to see the rubble and it’s going to trigger some memories.”

Still, he is recovering and doing it with a smile.

Tyson said he wants to get another dog after some time has passed. He plans to move back to Alaska and rebuild before September.