When Mark Leary loaded up his truck one day last winter in Bethel, Alaska, heavy with as much firewood as he could pile into the bed, he was making what had become a ritual twice-daily drive atop a frozen river into the heart of Western Alaska. The 2011-12 winter had delivered weeks of subzero temperatures to the region. Thermometer readings of minus 10, 20 and 30 degrees F were becoming as predictable as dawn. Rural families struggled to keep their homes warm, and he was on a mission to help them.

Stove fuel in Scammon Bay, a town of about 500 people one mile from the Bering Sea, sold for $7.33 per gallon during the winter. By July, it had risen to $7.41 and residents feared prices may continue rising this winter. With one of the longest, coldest, wettest winters on record, Alaskans across the state felt the pinch of making dollars stretch. And in the small, remote communities that dot Western Alaska, where dollars are already hard to come by, isolation and hardship magnifies the pain of each new financial strain. At $7.41 per gallon, it would take more than $2,400 of stove oil to heat an 800-square-foot, moderately insulated home. Wood selling at $500 per cord could heat the same home for slightly more than $1,600.