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The daunting task of identifying victims of the Camp Fire

In the 11 days since Northern California's Camp Fire ignited, residents have experienced “hell on earth." Firefighters have now contained about 66 percent of the fire. But as rain approaches, rescuers scramble to locate the nearly 1,000 people still missing--fearing that piles of ash will become treacherous mud. William Brangham speaks with Jim Wood, a forensic dentist helping to identify victims.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Returning to the wildfires in California, more than 11,000 homes have been torched since the Camp Fire broke out in the northern part of the state.

    Officials say it may take until the end of the month before the fire is fully contained. In addition to the devastation and loss of life, residents are dealing with heavily polluted air as well.

    As William Brangham reports, firefighters made significant progress this weekend.

  • William Brangham:

    It's been 11 days since the so-called Camp Fire ignited.

  • Man:

    Like hell on earth, honestly. It's been crazy.

  • William Brangham:

    Through the weekend, some 5,000 firefighters secured containment lines around two-thirds of the blaze. The fire itself is roughly the size of the city of Chicago.

  • Larry Truman:

    The danger is our footing right now, having our escape routes and safety zones identified, using — making sure our lookouts are available, so they can see if we have any issues come up with spot fires.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump got a first-hand look on Saturday, joined by Governor Jerry Brown and governor-elect Gavin Newsom.

    Now fire crews are hoping that rain which is expected to come in the next few days will bring more relief. But that forecast also adds urgency for search teams looking amid the ashes for the hundreds of people still listed as missing.

    They fear the rains could turn all that ash into mud, and possibly trigger landslides. But rain could also help clear the air of the dangerous levels of pollution caused by the fire.

    In San Francisco this weekend, people wore face masks, and smoke and smog obscured the Bay Bridge.

  • Chloe Allegret:

    It's pretty uncomfortable. I mean, it's definitely causing shortness of breath.

  • William Brangham:

    Meanwhile, hundreds of evacuees who sought shelter last week at a Wal-Mart parking lot in Chico are being urged to relocate quickly. Officials say several inches of rain could flood their makeshift camp.

    The search for the missing, of course, is a daunting one. Nearly 1,000 people from the Camp Fire are still unaccounted for. Officials believe this number will get smaller as duplicates are spotted and those who have been found are removed from the list.

    But the fire is already the deadliest in the state's history, and many fear its final toll will grow.

    California State Assemblyman Jim Wood is also a forensic dentist who's helping to identify victims using dental remains. He's volunteered and done some similar forensic work after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and after the fires in Northern California last year.

    Dr. Wood, thank you very much for being here.

    I wonder if you just could start off by helping us understand a little bit about what forensic dentistry in a circumstance like this, what it actually does. What do you do?

  • Dr. Jim Wood:

    Well, for us, doing forensic dentistry, it's an opportunity to take the records of a person who has died in one of these incidents, compare them to before-death records and match them up and hopefully identify them.

    It's a laborious process at times, but it's very effective, and it's been used in many, many mass disasters throughout the last 100 years.

  • William Brangham:

    So, searchers in the towns of Paradise and elsewhere go through burnt homes and burnt structures and try to find teeth and dental remains, and then they bring them to you, and then what happens at that point?

  • Dr. Jim Wood:

    Essentially, you're right. Search and rescue teams are out there.

    When they find what they suspect to be human remains, they bring a coroner's team in. They sometimes have with them an anthropologist. They gather the remains. All the remains are actually being taken to Sacramento, to the morgue in Sacramento, which is a much larger facility than what they have in Butte County, where it is examined by pathologists, the forensic dentists.

    We document the dental evidence. And then, in the background, we're working to gather the dental records to be able to make a comparison.

  • William Brangham:

    And I take it, in some of these communities, that's difficult too because the very dentists' offices themselves where many of these people might have gone might have been destroyed as well.

  • Dr. Jim Wood:

    Yes, more than half the dentists in the city of Paradise, for example, are — their offices are gone.

    So we're relying on those dentists who did lose their offices, many of them have electronic dental records that have been uploaded to the cloud or backed up to servers off site. So we're relying on them to get us what they can. But those offices that were burned were completely destroyed, and there really is no usable evidence from there.

  • William Brangham:

    I understand you were saying that you work largely in the morgue in Sacramento.

    Have you been physically able to see the towns of Paradise or what these environments actually look like?

  • Dr. Jim Wood:

    Yes, I was in Paradise on Wednesday and Thursday.

    And I will tell you, from my experience in the wine country fires, it prepared me for what I might see, but I was simply overwhelmed by the devastation there. It's far greater than what we experienced in Sonoma County. The breadth of it is enormous.

  • William Brangham:

    And I understand that the rain is forecast to come later this week, which, obviously, for the fires and for the air quality will be a huge relief.

    Could that complicate the search efforts, though?

  • Dr. Jim Wood:

    It actually could. And it's — this is a little bit unprecedented for us. In the fires we had before, it was earlier in the year. We were able to recover remains earlier. It wasn't an issue.

    But if these rains are hard, it could have a real problem — we could have a real problem recovering remains. Things could be moved. Things could be washed away. And there's really no way to contain all of this at this point.

    So it is a bit of a race against time, and the hope is that maybe the rains just aren't as heavy, and we don't have that much of an impact.

  • William Brangham:

    We saw this missing list is now somewhere the high 900s. And I understand there's duplicates in there. I understand that there are probably people who are safe and sound who just haven't alerted the authorities.

    But is it your sense that, even if there's a certain percentage of that list that really do turn out to be fatalities, we're talking about hundreds of people that still could have lost their lives?

  • Dr. Jim Wood:

    We are.

    And I think what's really staggering about this is, we simply really don't know. By now, you would have thought that a lot of the people that are truly going to be accounted for would have checked in, but we're not seeing that, and that's a little disturbing.

    Indeed, the numbers are dropping, but I'm really surprised that we haven't been able to make this list smaller, and that's very concerning.

  • William Brangham:

    Obviously, the work that you're doing is hugely important for the families, who just would like some sense of knowing what has happened to their loved one or their family member.

    I'm just curious, how are you and your colleagues doing? You have been at this for, I don't know, nine, 10, 11 days now. How you guys holding up?

  • Dr. Jim Wood:

    We're holding up fine. We really are struggling to get records.

    And, you know, once — I'm just convinced, once we have more records, we will be able to make more identifications. The conditions of the remains are consistent with what I have seen in the past, and some are in better condition than others.

    But, as in anybody, there's a little bit of tension that builds up there, and we just feel like we could be doing more, and we're just kind of stuck waiting for records.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Jim Wood, thank you very much for your time.

  • Dr. Jim Wood:

    Thank you very much.

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