5 years later: 5 new things about fire that killed Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighters

Anne Ryman
The Republic | azcentral.com
Lee and Diane Helm live only 600 yards from where the Granite Mountain Hotshots died.

YARNELL — Lee and Diane Helm own a ranch 600 yards from where 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013. 

The couple hunkered down inside their house as flames raced over that day. But their home, with its metal roof and stucco walls, survived unscathed. In the days following the fire, their ranch became a vital access point for recovery workers and later for fire officials who investigated the tragedy

More:Granite Mountain Hotshots: An untold story from the day 19 firefighters died

The Helms only recently began talking publicly about the fire. Their eyewitness account sheds new light on what happened in those early hours.

Here are 5 new revelations:

1. They heard the news early

The Helms were among the first to find out that a crew of 19 firefighters had died nearby. A firefighter walked up to Diane Helm, who was in her yard surveying damage after the fire. "Ma'am," he said. "We need to get back in here. We've got 19 dead firefighters up on the hill. We've got to get them out of here.”

The Helms never saw the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the day they died and never knew the crew was working nearby.

2. The 'safety zone' wasn't planned 

Yarnell Hill Fire officials had identified the Helms' 60-acre ranch as being "excellent safety zone" and a "bomb-proof safety zone" for firefighters because of the lack of brush and trees. But the Helms hadn't set out to create defensible space. 

Lee Helm just found maintenance easier without a lot of weeds, bushes and trees.

Or, as he put it, he purposely created a flat open space around the ranch house "to park my junk." 

Aerial view of the ranch property owned by Diane and Lee Helm in Glen Ilah. Yarnell Hill Fire officials called the ranch the "Boulder Springs Ranch" and designated it as an "excellent safety zone" for firefighters because of the metal roofs and lack of brush and trees surrounding the buildings.

3. The ranch had another name

Their ranch was identified on fire maps and later in books and magazine articles about the Yarnell Hill Fire as "Boulder Springs Ranch." There is no such ranch. Fire officials took the name from a trail called "Boulder Springs Trail" that dead-ends onto the Helms' land. The Helms actually named their ranch "Not Muchuva Ranch." 

4. The fire burned over, not around 

The Helms didn't evacuate as the Yarnell Hill Fire bore down. The fire was moving too fast. They also didn't want to leave their 22 animals. They hid inside their single-story home as flame and embers raced over.

The fire didn't burn around the ranch, as some have speculated. Flames burned right over the ranch. But the metal roofs and stucco walls protected the buildings. 

The fire and smoke turned the late afternoon skies pitch black as flames burned over. Looking out the windows, the Helms could see trees and brush burning through the blackness.

Diane Helm captured this photo of the Yarnell Hill Fire as it burned over the couple's home at 4:53 p.m. on Sunday, June 30, 2013.

5. Crews built a new road overnight

Fire officials at first considered sending a helicopter to remove the 19 firefighters. Instead, they decided to use a bulldozer to build a road from the Helms' ranch up to the site so trucks could get in.  

Far into the night, the Helms could hear the bulldozer grinding, carving a road to where the firefighters died. 

Reach the reporter at 602-444-8072 or anne.ryman@arizonarepublic.com.