California taps war-zone DNA specialists after wildfire

FILE PHOTO: A Butte County Sheriff deputy places yellow tape at the scene where human remains were found during the Camp fire in Paradise, California, U.S. November 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

(Reuters) – Paradise looked like a war zone when authorities decided to turn to a team of combat-trained DNA specialists to quickly identify human remains believed to be in the charred ruins left after a wildfire incinerated the northern California town.

For the grieving town, locating and identifying victims has become a top priority. With many of them likely burned beyond recognition, traditional DNA analysis techniques are inadequate, as they require samples to be shipped to a laboratory and take weeks to produce a DNA match. In addition, traditional tools sometimes fail when extreme heat damages tissue samples.

As a consequence, the Butte County Sheriff’s office hired a company specializing in Rapid DNA analysis, a technique primarily employed in war zones and crime scenes to generate results in about two hours. For the company, Colorado-based ANDE, it was the first time it would assist in the aftermath of a natural disaster since its founding in 2000.

“People have experienced so much loss and it’s not over yet,” said ANDE’s chief communications officer, Annette Mattern. “To be able to at least help some families know what the situation is will hopefully help in some small way.”

By Tuesday morning ANDE had set up a work site near Chico in Butte County, about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco. Chico, about 10 miles from Paradise, is the base for the search and firefighting operations.

Coroner-led recovery teams, cadaver dogs and a National Guard contingent have been scouring debris from the Camp Fire, the deadliest in California’s history, and turning over tissue and bone fragments to the ANDE team.

The company designed its tools specifically to withstand war zone conditions and has worked extensively with the U.S. military. It has also helped law enforcement identify sexual assault suspects and the United Nations in child trafficking cases, Mattern said.

Rapid DNA analysis has proven to be effective in identifying DNA from burned remains and bone fragments.

In hopes of identifying remains as quickly as possible, ANDE has set up near Chico seven Rapid DNA analysis instruments, which operate like portable labs to chemically process and generate data on the DNA. Six employees were on site by Wednesday, and more were on the way, said the company’s chief information officer, Stephen Meer.

“Certainly we are gearing up for higher capacity here,” Meer said.

Once the ANDE team finds a match between remains and DNA provided by a family member, the coroner’s office is alerted so it can make an official pronouncement of death.

Death certificates are required for families to settle matters as complicated as life insurance and estates and as basic as car titles, credit cards and bank accounts. Without positive identification, families may have to wait years for a death certificate to be issued for a missing loved one, depending on state rules.

More Stories