The search-and-rescue crew was sifting through ashes at a skilled-nursing facility when the radio call came in: a potential discovery just a quarter-mile up the road, at the Pine Springs Mobile Home Park.
Within minutes, nearly two-dozen people had descended on the smoldering remains of the trailer community in Paradise, the town destroyed by Northern California’s Camp Fire. Where days before about 60 mobile homes had been clustered under tall evergreen trees, three remained unburnt. Recovery workers in white jumpsuits and gray booties, firefighters, coroners’ employees and police chaplains from places across California began to methodically comb through the soil with rakes and hoes. With meticulous intent, volunteers sorted through melted metal and unidentifiable pieces of char for the smallest bits of humanity: teeth, bone fragments, hip replacements – anything that signaled a person had died in this place of gray cinders and lingering smoke.
After nearly two hours, they had gruesome success. A black hearse was summoned, and bags of human remains were loaded inside.
The bleak chore of retrieving vestiges of the dead is being repeated across this region daily now, with no answers for how long the task will take – or how fruitful it will be.
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“Some of these people are not going to be identified,” said Jesse Dizard, an anthropology professor at nearby Chico State University. The university’s anthropology department, skilled at identifying skeletal remains, is assisting in the forensic effort.
Officials said they’ve found 77 victims as of Sunday night, an increase of one from the day before. The names of six victims have been released, and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office said it has made tentative ID’s of 63 others. More than 1,200 names are on a list of the missing, although officials said some of the names are likely duplicates. Officials have said they expect more deaths, and more discoveries like those at Pine Springs.
Making positive identifications of victims who perished in the Camp Fire will be painstakingly difficult. Many have been burned beyond recognition. In some cases, just individual bones or fragments are left. If teeth survived, matching them with dental records will be difficult in a town where some dentists’ offices burned along with nearly everything else. Even DNA analysis won’t be easy, because of the scarcity of remains and the temperatures to which they were exposed.
“We’re finding remains in various states,” Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said. “I suspect there are some that will have been completely consumed.”
Search-and-rescue teams can take hours collecting a single victim – trying to make sure bones or other body parts aren’t left behind for relatives and friends to find when they return.
Still, “there is certainly the unfortunate possibility that even after we’ve searched an area, once people get back in there, it’s possible that human remains could be found,” Honea said. “I know that’s a very difficult thing to think about, but that’s the difficult situation we find ourselves in today.”
A variety of scientific methods, old and new, are being employed to identify the Camp Fire dead. Mobile DNA labs have been sent to Butte County to collect samples from survivors at the same time that firefighters are poking through the blackened hulls of automobiles for vehicle identification numbers. Several hundred people are working on the effort.
Victims are being shipped via refrigerated trucks to the Sacramento County morgue for identification and officials say progress is being made.
Honea said he’s encouraged that the state Department of Justice, which is overseeing the collection of DNA samples from victims and surviving relatives, is getting help from a Colorado DNA company called ANDE, which has dispatched a dozen employees to the area.
The company brought seven of its “Rapid DNA” analysis devices, which spokeswoman Annette Mattern described as “a laboratory in a box,” to Butte County. ANDE is donating its services to the Camp Fire effort.
The sheer heat generated by California’s deadliest wildfire will complicate matters. At its peak, the inferno may have reached temperatures exceeding 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. It could be impossible in some cases to obtain DNA samples from the victims, thwarting what is often the ID method employed when all else fails.
“The severity, the blaze, the burning – who knows what DNA is left?” said Colleen Fitzpatrick, founder of an Orange County consulting company called Identifinders International. “You need a certain amount of DNA.”
DNA samples have been obtained from materials exposed to ultra-high temperatures, including a backpack destroyed by a pipe bomb. But Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin, whose morgue is serving as ground zero for identification efforts, agreed that fire can sometimes obliterate genetic clues.
“Fires are always the worst because if you have to go to DNA, it’s kind of harder with burned remains,” Gin said.
DNA identification can be particularly dicey when only small bone fragments are available. To extract DNA from a bone, pathologists have to destroy a portion of it. Examiners are sometimes reluctant to do that “because that may be the last bit of that person,” said Anthony Falsetti, a forensic anthropologist at George Mason University in Virginia.
“When the sample is consumed by the testing, then you have no more sample to test again if the technology changes,” he said.
Technological improvements are enabling DNA identifications even from the smallest pieces of bone, where once the analysis required more. In July, the New York City chief medical examiner announced the office had identified a victim of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 17 years after the twin towers were destroyed, using a newer technique called “ultrasonic ball bearings.” The process involves pulverizing a bone with a piece of metal, and extracting bits of DNA from the resulting fragments.
Even with new methods, about 40 percent of the victims at the World Trade Center – about 1,100 people – haven’t been positively identified.
Jim Wood, a dentist who is also a Democratic assemblyman from Santa Rosa, helped identify victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. He also spent weeks identifying about two dozen victims from the wine country fires in October 2017.
“It’s hard to say, but I’ve been through this before,” he said.
Woods arrived in the Paradise area last week to help again. He said dental records are often the quickest and cheapest method of identifying remains, simply because of the relative indestructibility of the material involved.
“Teeth are still the hardest substance in the body,” he said.
Wood said forensic dentists have sometimes identified remains even if the teeth are mostly destroyed.
“We would have just fragments of teeth, no jawbones,” he said. “We comb through everything we can to make an identification.”
He acknowledged that the particularly dire circumstances of the Camp Fire might make dental identifications more difficult: At least some of Paradise’s dental offices went up in smoke, taking patient records with them. Wood said he’s looking for alternative sources of records, such as Medi-Cal, as backups.
“We’re actively building dental records with anything we can,” he said.
Many of the search-and-rescue teams are assisted by forensic anthropologists, including several dozen students and professors from Chico State. The anthropologists weed out non-human finds including dog or cat bones and can use human bones to cull vital clues about the dead.
The length of a thighbone, for instance, can provide an estimate of the person’s height, said Alexandra Perrone, supervisor of Chico State’s Human Identification Laboratory. Other remains may contain evidence that the person had a hip or knee replacement, she said — allowing identification through medical records.
“Forensic anthropologists can estimate sex, age, ancestry, stature, pathology,” she said.
Despite the many methods being used to bring names to the dozens of Camp Fire victims, there is a real possibility there will be no closure on some cases. The best that authorities may be able to do is make an educated guess by where the remains are found.
Honea said he’s wary of relying on “circumstantial evidence” – such as identifying a person because they were found at a particular address. That kind of deduction “provides the least certainty,” Honea said.
As the search and identification process labors on, Wood said he and others feel the responsibility of doing the work carefully, and the emotional weight of handling so many remains.
As he heard that the Camp Fire had devoured most of Paradise, Wood started having flashbacks, he said.
“When I started to see the numbers (of victims) rise here, it brought back a whole flood of emotions from what we went through last year,” Wood said.