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How One Couple Survived the Deadly Yarnell Hill Fire

It has been 10 years since 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The hotshots were headed toward a ranch on the edge of town when fire overran them on the afternoon of June 30, 2013. The owners of that ranch, Diane “D.J.” and Lee Helm, spoke exclusively to ABC15 recently about that tragic day.

The hotshots died only a third of a mile from the ranch. D.J. believes if they had a little more time, they could have made it to the couple’s metal barn, where their animals survived the fire.

“I’d say if they had 15 minutes, they probably would have made it here,” she said.

Earlier that day, D.J. and Lee watched as a wildfire burned west of Yarnell. But they weren’t especially worried. The fire was on the other side of a mountain ridge. The wind pushed the fire north, away from town. Even so, there was still a threat to Yarnell, an unincorporated community of about 650 residents southwest of Prescott. Fire officials had asked permission to use their ranch as a safety zone for firefighters, if needed.

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D.J. and Lee Helm own a ranch about a third of a mile from where the Granite Mountain Hotshots died. The hotshots were on the way to the ranch when the crew was overrun by fire.

Late that afternoon, D.J. stepped outside the house to go to the barn. It was about 4:30 p.m. She noticed the wind had shifted and increased, blowing the fire toward the 60-acre ranch. She saw a rolling mass of orange flames and black smoke.

“You better come look at this,” she yelled to Lee.

Lee told her they needed to get the animals inside the barn. They scrambled to get horses, goats, donkeys, and a llama. Once they coaxed the animals inside, they headed to the house.

No sooner had the back door shut than flames and embers shot over the house. The power went out. Everything went dark. Smoke seeped through the vents.

“I figured, ‘this is it. We’re going to burn up in the house,’” D.J. said.

Lee was confident they would be OK. Their home had stucco walls and a metal roof, and he kept the area surrounding the buildings free of weeds and brush.

D.J. snapped a couple of photos through the window, showing the outdoors plunged into darkness and bushes glowing red with flames. A clock on the wall read 4:53 p.m.

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D.J. Helm snapped this photo inside the couple’s ranch home as the Yarnell Hill Fire hit their property on the afternoon of June 30, 2013. It was shortly before 5 p.m. but completely black outside.

Little by little, the darkness cleared.

They stepped outside. Gray smoke filled the air, making it difficult to breathe. The animals were fine.

Soot covered the house and barn. The heat blew out and cracked multiple windows of their shop. The structures were otherwise unscathed.

They rushed to put out spot fires on the property.

The outside resembled a moonscape. The heat blackened the giant boulders. Trees and bushes looked like matchsticks. D.J. stood in the yard, thinking, how are we going to fix this?

“Because we’re fixers, you know. We can’t fix this. This is bad,” she said.

It was about to get worse.

As D.J. stood in the yard, surveying the damage, a man walked up behind her.

“We’ve got 19 dead firefighters up there,” he told her. “We’re gonna need to land a helicopter in here.”

A hotshot team from Prescott – the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew – had been working nearby, on the other side of a mountain ridge, unbeknownst to D.J. and Lee.

Photo taken outside D.J. and Lee Helm ranch in 2013 by Anne Ryman a few weeks after fire.JPG
A view of the blackened boulders and dead trees looking out toward D.J. and Lee Helm’s 60-acre ranch.

Fire officials later speculated the hotshots may have headed for the ranch so they could reposition themselves to save homes in Yarnell.

As the hotshots picked their way through the enormous boulders and dense brush, the fire cut off their escape route. They used chainsaws and burned brush in hopes of creating a safety zone. But fire overtook them. Eric Marsh, the hotshots’ superintendent, made one final radio transmission around 4:40 p.m.

“I’m here with Granite Mountain Hotshots, our escape route has been cut off. We are preparing a deployment site and we are burning out around ourselves in the brush and I’ll give you a call when we are under the sh— the shelters.”

The hotshots deployed their aluminum fire shelters, but the heat was too intense.

An Arizona Department of Safety helicopter spotted the shelters shortly after 6 p.m.

A fire official initially told D.J. and Lee they would send in a helicopter to recover the hotshots’ bodies. But the recovery team decided instead to cut a road from the ranch to where the men died.

Late into the night, D.J. and Lee could hear a bulldozer pushing aside boulders and burning brush.

The next morning, D.J. was in the barn doing chores when fire officials pulled up in pickup trucks. They were accompanied by a chaplain, the medical examiner, and a line of 10 white vans.

“I just stood there and watched them. It was unbelievable,” D.J. said.

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D.J. Helm was in the barn doing chores when vans pulled up to recover the fallen hotshots.

The hotshots were brought out in the backs of pickup trucks, each covered with an American flag. She could see a chaplain speaking. Then they were transferred to the white vans.

In the days and weeks after the fire, D.J. and Lee’s ranch became a key access point to the fatality site for fire officials and later for investigators hired to conduct an analysis of the tragedy.

From their backdoor, they can see an American flag that flies in memory of the fallen. The site where the hotshots died is now a memorial. D.J. has never been there.

“I will never go there. I don’t want to see it. I’ve seen enough pictures of it,” she said.

Lee will sometimes walk to the memorial.

The oak brush is mostly grown back, though not as tall. There are reminders everywhere: A dead tree. A blackened boulder. And, of course, the hotshots’ memorial, which is now a state park.

Nineteen crosses mark the spots where the Granite Mountain Hotshots died.

The emotions have sometimes been too much for Lee and D.J. At one point, they considered selling their ranch.

But now, they say they will live out their days here.

Despite the tragedy, this is home.