Authorities probing firefighter death in Arizona

Published July 25, 2011

| Associated Press

Authorities are investigating the death of a veteran firefighter who was reported missing from a blaze on the Fort Apache reservation in eastern Arizona.

Search crews found the body of Deon Classay, of Whiteriver, early Sunday morning after a nighttime search and efforts to reach him through a handheld radio he was carrying a day earlier failed.

Classay was part of the Fort Apache Hotshots who did initial attacks on the lightning-caused Diamond Fire that broke out north of the Black River around noon Saturday. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs' Fort Apache Agency said Monday that Classay was born in 1968, but she was not sure of the month.

The hotshot crew hiked back to camp after building a line around the 35-acre fire that was burning in steep, rocky terrain with dense fuel. The incident commander realized Classay was missing and initiated a search, according to a preliminary report.

Authorities have called for stress counselors and an accident investigation team to determine what happened, said Fort Apache Agency spokeswoman Candy Lupe. She had no further information on the circumstances surrounding Classay's death.

Classay joined the Fort Apache Hotshots in 1990 and has worked on the state's two largest wildfires — the Wallow Fire that broke out May 29 and burned 538,049 acres, mostly in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, and the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire that charred 468,000 acres in June 2002.

The BIA offered its condolences to Classay's family. He leaves behind a wife, two children, two grandchildren and his mother, Lupe said.

"This is such a tight-knit community that we all know each other, and a lot of us are related to each other," Lupe said. "Everyone in the community is taking it hard."

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, has tracked more than 1,000 deaths associated with fighting wildfires from 1910-2010. They include deaths associated with equipment, burns and medical conditions.

The last one in Arizona before Classay's death was in October 2008 when a state Department of Corrections worker who was supervising inmates battling a fire on the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge had a heart attack, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

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