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It's one thing to be self-sufficient when things are going smoothly, and entirely another to be self-sufficient during a catastrophic situation. Life has a way of throwing curveballs at us, and being able to deal with these challenges will test your survival skills, especially when you're all alone. The recent story of 30-year-old Tyson Steele, who was stranded in sub-zero temperatures for more than 20 days after his cabin burned down, is a reminder of this fact. Thankfully, Steele was able to stay alive until Alaska State Troopers rescued him.
On Thursday, January 9th, an Alaska State Trooper helicopter was dispatched to conduct a welfare check on Steele at his cabin in the remote woods 20 miles from the town of Skwentna. Steele's family became concerned after not hearing from him for several weeks, an unusually long period of time for him to go without checking in. The helicopter found Steele waving his arms outside the ruins of his cabin, with “SOS” carved into the snow nearby.
Hours after Steele was rescued, he explained what happened in detail — you can read a PDF of the entire account on the Alaska DPS web site. It all began in the middle of the night on December 17th or 18th, as Steele recalls: ” I got hasty and I put a big piece of cardboard in the stove to start the fire … it sent a spark out through the chimney, which landed on the roof.” The resulting ember slowly burned a piece of plastic tarp, which grew into a blazing inferno while he slept.
At roughly 1 AM, he awoke to find the entire roof on fire. He ran back inside to wake his 6-year-old labrador retriever, Phil, who jumped up and appeared to run outside. He then attempted to save a few critical supplies — warm clothes, a sleeping bag, and blankets he'd need to survive the -15°F winter cold. He rushed out shortly before the fire spread to engulf his stockpile of cooking oil, as well as 500 rounds of ammunition, and finally a propane cylinder that exploded.
Tragically, the dog didn't make it outside after all. “I was hysterical… I have no words for what sorrow; it was just, just a scream,” he recalled.
He worked until sunrise, attempting to put out sections of the fire, but eventually sat down to formulate a plan. He determined that he had 60 cans of food, many of which were charred and questionably-edible. The only way in and out was through a chartered private plane — the ground was blanketed in 5 feet of soft snow, and Steele's snowshoes had burned up in the fire. Additionally, his cell phone had recently stopped charging due to a faulty battery, so he was unable to use it to call for rescue.
Steele scavenged some lumber and tarps to build an improvised shelter around the surviving wood stove, and was able to stave off hypothermia. “I could still see my breath, but at least I wasn’t suffering.” He ate ruptured cans of half-burned food and peanut butter in melted plastic jars. After approximately 22 days, the State Trooper helicopter arrived to find him healthy but cold and ash-stained.
You can read a full account of Steele's survival story in his own words here. By his own admission, he made some critical mistakes that exacerbated the disastrous situation, most notably a lack of emergency communications equipment. However, his commendable resourcefulness and determination allowed him to stay safe until rescuers arrived.