Originally Published: November 16, 2017 6:02 a.m.
As the Yarnell Hill Fire raged around and over the top of them, Diane and Lee Helm took refuge in their ranch house perched among the boulders.
Little did they know that less than a half-mile away, 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were battling the blaze, and would die there, in a brush-filled box canyon.
In a recently released book, “Fire on the Wind,” Diane J. (DJ) Helm tells the harrowing but little-known side of the story from the center of the deadly 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire.
“The fire was ripping and rolling and roaring all around us,” Helm recalled recently of the 15 to 20 minutes when the fire overtook the couple’s Yarnell-area ranch.
At one point, Diane said she told her husband, “I think we’re going to go up in smoke,” and he responded calmly, “I think we’ll be OK in here.”
And they were.
The blaze pitched the ranch into darkness and filled the house with hot, smoky air. But the ranch buildings, with their stucco and metal materials, protected the Helms and their menagerie of pets and farm animals from the fire.
Although the fire torched the surrounding vegetation — as well as much of the landscaping, decorative and historic collectibles and exterior utilities — the interiors were largely unharmed. And all of the Helms’ two dozen or so dogs, cats, donkeys and llamas made it through the devastating blaze.
In the nick of time
Helm’s book offers a riveting look into the couple’s ground-zero position in the tragedy — from the time they heard about the small lightning-started fire on the hill overlooking their home, to the frenzied dash around the ranch to protect the animals, to the tragic news of the Hotshots’ loss, to the onslaught of investigators and curious onlookers afterward.
When the fire started on Friday, June 28, 2013, the Helms were away for a long weekend of sightseeing and relaxation at the Grand Canyon. They received word of the blaze by telephone from friends and neighbors. At that time, the message was reassuring: The fire was small; there was nothing to be concerned about.
They arrived back home on Saturday night, and although the fire was growing, it appeared to be “passing us up, since it was heading away from us,” Helm wrote.
The Helms headed to sleep that night, “confident the fire officials were going to take care of it very soon.”
At about 11 p.m., though, they had a visit from two local fire officials that foreshadowed the significance of their ranch location.
The fire officials came to the ranch to ask Lee if they could use the ranch – named Not Muchuva Ranch, not Boulder Springs Ranch, as has been widely written — as a “safety zone,” if it became necessary.
“Lee told them they were welcome to use our place as their safety zone and they could put the pumpkin (an inflatable, orange, 5,000-gallon pool-like water tank) next to our own 5,000-gallon water storage tank,” Helm wrote in her book.
Throughout Sunday, June 30, the fire continued to grow, but still, it appeared to be moving away from the Helms’ property.
It wasn’t until a little after 4:30 p.m., when Helm decided to go to the barn to check on Torri, a dog she was fostering.
“When I got to the window, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw!” Helm wrote. “A reddish-orange cloud-like mass was barreling down on us from the north.”
In a panic, she called her husband to come take a look, and the two immediately ran to the barnyard to get the animals inside. They had minutes to coax the nervous animals inside and secure the barn before the fire approached. Helm tells of them barely getting inside the house in time.
“Appearing as if a living predator, the fireball of churning winds laden with black smoke and live embers began its assault on our home as soon as I got inside,” she wrote.
The fire spared the Helms and their animals, but it did take a toll. “Contrary to what many people have heard, that the Yarnell Hill Fire went around us leaving us unscathed, it didn’t!” Helm wrote. “The reported 50-to-100-foot flames hit us straight on, rolling up, over, and around our shop, barn, and house.”
As they made the rounds to assess the damage afterward, the Helms soon heard the devastating news of the Hotshots.
Helm tells about getting a visit at about 7:30 p.m. by a fire official who relayed the news that 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots had died about one-third mile from the ranch, and that crews might have to land a helicopter at the ranch to get to the site.
Stunned, Helm says she told him, “Do whatever you have to do to get them out.” Her husband said the same thing to another official, she said.
With that began a process that lasted several years: First, the heartbreaking retrieval of the Hotshots with coroner vehicles, then the extensive investigations, then the family visits, then the media inquiries, and the curious onlookers intent on accessing the fatality site through the Helms’ property.
Helm’s book tells of those months and years in vivid detail, accompanied by photographs, most of which she took herself.
An avid historian, Helm also expertly intersperses the story with background on Yarnell’s colorful mining history. She also includes the story of her and Lee’s move to the area, and their construction of the ranch.
Because of the extensive history, Helm notes that the book “spans three centuries.”
She began journaling about the fire just days after the tragedy, and said she chose to write the book to allow for a full telling of the tragedy’s story.
“Sometimes I wondered if our side of the story really mattered,” Helm wrote, adding that she was encouraged by author John Maclean and former wildland firefighter Holly Neill. “They believed our experience was significant in relation to the overall telling of this tragic event,” she said.
Throughout, Helm emphasizes the grief she and Lee felt at the loss of the young Hotshots so close to their home, as well as the experience of Hotshot Brendan McDonough, who survived the fire.
“I think about the 20 Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots every day, fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons. I had not known any of them, which was my loss. Each of them has a story, a separate life from the others, but 19 were side-by-side, as one, facing the flaming front, together,” Helm wrote.
Since November 2016, the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park has existed adjacent to the Helms’ ranch, and a flag designating the fatality site is visible from the ranch.
“Fire on the Wind” is available for purchase on Amazon.com, as well as at the Peregrine Book Company in downtown Prescott, and the Yarnell Emporium, and Maughan Ranches feed store.