Three words exemplify U.S. Forest Service Battalion Chief Gary Helming’s leadership — selflessness, sacrifice and trust.
A friend of the fallen firefighter offered that assessment Wednesday during a funeral service in Orcutt to remember the man another colleague called “enormously respected.”
Firefighters came from throughout California and beyond for the service held at the Pacific Christian Center, where Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County ladder trucks formed an arch to fly a giant American flag.
The 90-minute service included speeches from colleagues and friends, prompting laughter and tears. It was preceded by a procession of nearly 40 firefighting vehicles from Marshall Spoo Sunset Funeral Chapel in Grover Beach to the church.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Helming, 47, of Pismo Beach died Aug. 31 in a vehicle crash on Highway 41 in Kings County while returning from helping fight the Railroad Fire near Yosemite National Park.
“He always put others first,” Division Chief Mark von Tillow said, adding that his friend was known for the sacrifices he made for the job and was trusted among peers for his skills.
Helming was assigned to the Los Padres National Forest’s Santa Lucia Ranger District, which includes northern Santa Barbara County and San Luis Obispo County.
“What I learned about Gary lets me know he had passion — he had a passion for his family, he had a passion for helping his fellow man, and a passion for public service,” said Tony Tooke, chief of the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C.
Helming began working for the Forest Service 22 years ago as a seasonal firefighter.
He also worked for the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service before returning to the Forest Service in 2013.
“He was an outstanding employee. He was an outstanding firefighter. He was an outstanding public servant,” Tooke said.
The difficult job of firefighting can be laborious, repetitive, physically demanding and more, Tooke said.
“It takes a special type of person to serve as a wildland firefighter. Within the wildland firefighting community, Gary was enormously respected. He was respected for his professionalism, his experience,” Tooke said.
Robert Baird, Region 5 fire director for the Forest Service, recalled that Helming worked on the Soberanes Fire in Monterey County last year, overseeing 4,000 firefighters, 405 engines, 67 bulldozers and dozens of aircraft.
“That’s a lot of stuff. That’s a lot of people and it’s a lot of hazards,” Baird said. “Gary weathered that extremely well. He was a leader that inspired people to come around him.”
He called Helming the “consummate chief officer,” especially focused on risk and firefighter safety.
“I’ll miss you, Gary. We’ll all miss you. You were selfless, funny, sometimes sarcastic — often sarcastic — but you were always fun to be around,” Baird said.
The fallen firefighter’s mother, Elizabeth Helming, said she knew her son would grow up to wear a uniform, but wasn’t certain which one.
“He chose the best one — that of a firefighter. He loved what he did,” she said.
Her grandson, Riley Helming, preceded her, standing on a box to confidently read a poem about dads on behalf of his siblings, twins Walker and Nalani.
“I will remember all he taught me. I’m hurt but won’t be sad,” the boy read. “Because he’ll send me down the answers. And he’ll always be my dad.”
During the memorial, Helming’s widow, Andrea, received a national flag and California flag that flew over the Capitol.
Two statues, including a foot-tall replica of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation’s Monument, were presented to family members, with Riley clinging to one while walking out of the church.
The forest’s Santa Lucia Ranger District gave the family a plaque and firefighting hand tool called a pulaski.
Later, an interagency honor guard conducted a last bell ceremony before the Los Padres Communications Center fire dispatcher made a final radio call repeatedly calling “Battalion 31,” Helming’s radio sign.
The dispatcher received only silence in response.
“This is the last call for fallen firefighter Gary Helming. We would like to thank you for your dedicated service and your continuous sacrifices made for the community. Los Padres Dispatch acknowledges fallen firefighter Gary Helming.
“Gary Helming, Battalion 31, is out of service. Godspeed and farewell.”
A GoFundMe page for the family has raised more than $79,000 of a $100,000 goal in less than a week.
Cards and other condolences for the family can be sent to the Santa Lucia Ranger District, Attention: Helming Family, 1616 Carlotti Drive, Santa Maria, CA 93454.
Donations also can be made to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.