Forensic odontologists help identify victims of disaster, crime

As the smoke cleared from the Northern California wildfire that destroyed more than 153,000 acres, 18,804 structures and most of the town of Paradise last November, four CDA members worked night and day at the Sacramento morgue to help identify the remains of victims who died in that fire.

Led by California Assemblymember Jim Wood, DDS, the team of forensic odontologists, including Drs. George Gould, Roland Chew, Mark Porco and Duane Spencer, examined teeth, tooth roots, metal crowns and porcelain fillings — often the only evidence of a victim left in the ashes of a burned home — comparing them to dental records in hopes of identifying an individual and offering closure to grieving families and friends.

Forensic odontologists are typically called in by law enforcement to identify human remains that cannot be identified using other methods of recognition. In fact, the majority of cases in which forensic dentists are involved center on the identification of human remains, according to an article in a 2015 CDA Journal issue dedicated to the subject. Trained forensic odontologists compare the antemortem and postmortem records of a victim tooth by tooth.

Only a few dozen dentists in California have experience in forensic odontology, Dr. Spencer explained in his 2015 Journal editorial. Dr. Wood is one of the few who are called on to help with forensic identifications, such as for the victims of Northern California’s Camp Fire. He and his team worked side by side examining root canals, specific anatomical features in the bone, unusual arrangements of teeth and anything else that might have been unique to an individual, including root patterns.

“If you have antimortem records, you can compare the (root) patterns if there are some unique characteristics to the roots of the teeth,” said Wood in a Nov. 30 interview with CDA. “We’d rather have dental restorations and clinical crowns to assist us, but we have made a few identifications based on root morphology.”

Wood has worked as a forensic odontologist for 25 years and is one of just 100 dentists in the country who are certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontology. In the past, he has assisted with identifying victims of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Northern California Wine Country fires of 2017. Through these difficult experiences, he learned how important good dental records are to a forensic investigation.

Poor-quality images and undated X-rays can slow down the identification process, Wood said. Investigators need the best-quality images that dentists can provide when a coroner or law enforcement makes a request for records. That includes high-resolution images that are dated and, if no electronic records are available, original X-rays.

“Too many times I get images that are just difficult to read, and if they’re digital, they’re often lower resolution,” Wood said. “I’m involved in a medical, legal, death investigation so I need the best records that the dentist has.”

Three weeks after the start of the Camp Fire, Wood and his forensic odontology team’s work at the morgue was done. The dentists had examined an estimated 60 sets of remains and made 12 identifications, and at that time no other remains had been recovered.

“We’ve pretty much wrapped up at this point, unless more cases come in,” Wood said. “I may end up going back in to re-examine some cases, but at this point we’ve got all of the work done there now — all of the X-rays and charting — and it’s been put into the computer database that we built.”

While his assistance with disasters such as the Camp Fire eventually comes to an end, Wood continues to “give back” in another way — by advocating for laws and policies that will help prevent those disasters from occurring in the first place. As an assemblymember representing the North Coast and as a resident of Sonoma County, he was especially impacted by the Wine Country fires. After assisting with the forensic investigation for victims of those fires, he went on to make wildfire prevention a top priority in his work in the state Assembly.

In 2018, Wood and Assemblymember Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) focused their bipartisan efforts on the passage of Senate Bill 901, which earmarked a billion dollars for wildfire-prevention efforts over the next five years. And on the first day of the 2019-20 legislative session Dec. 3, Wood authored Assembly Bill 38, which calls for the creation of state and regional “community fire preparedness councils” to increase the scale of California’s fire preparedness and a $500 million revolving loan fund to help homeowners improve the fire resistance of their homes and property. The bill also requires the state community fire preparedness council to develop a list of construction features that must be retrofitted, or built into new construction, in high and very high fire hazard severity zones.

“One life lost, one home burned or one community devastated by wildfires, is one too many,” stated Wood in the press release that announced AB 38. “And if there’s something I can do about it, I’ll go to the ends of the earth to do it.”

As of Dec. 12, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office reported that of the 86 people who died in the Camp Fire, 30 had been tentatively identified and 53 had been positively identified.

Read more about forensic odontology in the June 2015 CDA Journal.

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California’s 2018 wildfires damaged and destroyed property and claimed lives in many areas throughout the state. The Nov. 8 Camp Fire in Paradise is the most destructive in state history, claiming at least 85 lives and burning nearly 19,000 structures. The fire chewed through 153,336 acres — homes, schools, churches and businesses, including nine dental practices and one clinic.

To help dental professionals in need, the CDA Foundation in early August established a Disaster Relief Grant for individuals — a one-time, single-installment grant that provides financial assistance of up to $5,000 for immediate and emergency needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) as a direct result of the 2018 California wildfires. Grant funds are still available.