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Santa Maria memorial planned for fallen U.S. Forest Service fire battalion chief

Cal Fire honors battalion chief Helming who died in traffic collision after Railroad Fire

Cal Fire pays to tribute to U.S. Forest Service fire battalion chief Gary Helming of Pismo Beach who died in a collision on Highway 41 south of Highway 33 Aug. 31, 2017. He was on his way home from the Railroad Fire near Yosemite. A memorial is pl
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Cal Fire pays to tribute to U.S. Forest Service fire battalion chief Gary Helming of Pismo Beach who died in a collision on Highway 41 south of Highway 33 Aug. 31, 2017. He was on his way home from the Railroad Fire near Yosemite. A memorial is pl

A public memorial service to remember fallen U.S. Forest Service firefighter Gary Helming is planned for Wednesday in Santa Maria.

Helming, a Los Padres National Forest fire battalion chief based in Santa Maria, was killed in a vehicle accident Thursday while returning from a wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park.

The service, which is open to the public, is set to begin at 10 a.m. at Pacific Christian Center, 3435 Santa Maria Way, Los Padres officials said on Twitter.

The 47-year-old Pismo Beach resident was assigned to the Santa Lucia Ranger District in northern Santa Barbara and southern San Luis Obispo counties.

He died while returning to the Central Coast after an assignment on the 4,360-acre Railroad Fire burning along Highway 41 in the Sierra National Forest.

The crash occurred Thursday morning when Antonio Avalos, 25, of Santa Maria was northbound on Highway 41, south of Highway 33, and the driver’s side tire on his 2000 Ford F-350 truck went flat suddenly, according to the California Highway Patrol.

The vehicle swerved into the southbound lanes and hit Helming’s 2014 Ford F-350.

Helming was pinned inside his vehicle during the collision and died at the scene of the Kings County crash, the CHP said.

Avalos received major injuries and was transported to a Fresno area hospital.

Helming began working for the Forest Service 22 years ago as a seasonal firefighter. He worked for the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service before returning to the Forest Service again in 2013.

While working for BLM, he served on the agency’s honor guard, Los Padres officials said.

Mark Von Tillow, a Forest Service division chief and incident commander, noted the loss on Twitter, calling Helming “a mentor, colleague and most wonderful human being and friend.”

In 2015, Helming received the Los Padres honor during the Santa Maria Elks Firefighters Appreciation Night.

Gov. Jerry Brown ordered Capitol flags to fly at half staff in honor of Helming.

He is survived by his wife, who also worked for the Forest Service, and three children.

A GoFundMe page for the family has been set up and can be found by clicking here.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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