As death toll rises in California fires, forensic anthropologists face grim task of identifying remains

As wildfires ravage California and the death toll continues to rise, we talk to a forensic anthropologist about the challenges in identifying victims and the importance of bringing some sense of closure to their loved ones.

People have the right to know the fate of their loved ones, says Anthony Falsetti

A group of Cal Fire firefighters work on a burning structure during the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., November 9, 2018. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)
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As wildfires rage on in California, forensic workers face the grim task of identifying the remains of those who could not escape.

In the past week, several fires in the state have destroyed nearly 9,000 homes and scorched more than 570 square kilometres. There are at least 300 people unaccounted for, while the death toll has now climbed to 56.

Authorities have brought in a mobile DNA lab and forensic anthropologists to help identify the dead.

One of the biggest issues with victims from fire is that the bodies — the remains — are very fragile.- Anthony Falsetti

Anthony Falsetti worked as a forensic anthropologists on many large-scale disasters, including the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He's now a professor of forensic science at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

He spoke to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about the task ahead of forensic anthropologists in California. Here is part of their conversation.

As you watch this from your vantage point, how does it compare with the disasters where you've been?

The World Trade Center was quite, quite large in scale but I believe hundreds of acres are affected and the potential for individuals to be found in an area as large as the city is pretty daunting.

A view of homes destroyed by the Camp Fire is seen in Paradise, Calif., Nov. 11, 2018. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

And so can you describe how a forensic anthropologist would approach a situation like the site of the Camp Fire in California?

What I understand is that the forensic teams, the anthropologists will be going out with medical investigators and more than likely, members of the [FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force (US&R)], the firefighters.

And they're only going to be able to go into those places that have already been cleared for potential flare-ups from the fire. So, you know, there's that added concern of safety. It is a methodological search, you know, you follow the US&R teams to the areas they've already cleared, and look for likely places to find individuals, where they may have gone to seek shelter. So looking in the home structures first, vehicles second.

It will be a very methodological approach, much like a crime scene. 

Forensic anthropologist Anthony Falsetti on the painstaking job of identifying remains after a disaster. 1:53

When they're looking for human remains, and when you're doing that, what's that moment like when you think you've found something?

It's a gratifying moment because that's the task that you've been sent to accomplish. Your radar goes up because you really want to preserve the remains. One of the biggest issues with victims from a fire, is that the bodies — the remains — are very fragile. The term we use is friable. And so when you come across remains that you believe are human, then you immediately go into photographing and finding ways to preserve that because you know that as soon as you move that body that there may be more than you had started with. I don't know a better way to put it, but remains can come apart through transportation, so you want to do what you can to preserve them.

Flames consume a Kentucky Fried Chicken as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

And you're kind of always aware in the back of your mind that there is somebody, somewhere, waiting to find out about them.

Absolutely. And that's why we take such care in preserving because we're never certain what will be that identifying feature or characteristic that will identify that person so that we can return them.

I read somewhere where you said people have a right to know the fate of their loved ones. You really believe that?

I do, I do. It comes from the Geneva Convention in 1945. And as part of the declaration — the International Declaration of Human Rights — people have the right to know the fate of their loved ones.

It's what informed me in the work that I do, and that's why I continue to pursue this.

Flames consume a home as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Noah Berger/The Associated Press)

Do you have any memories that really stand out for you on how you've been, when you've been doing this work, and how you've been able to connect a family to greater knowledge about what happened to a loved one?

In Haiti, we were able to identify a young person — a very young person, a young child — who was about 10 years old, who was trapped in a hotel that collapsed. And he was one of maybe 14 or 15 people who died in that hotel. And his family stayed by the site of that hotel for weeks while we were there moving parts of the structure with heavy equipment.

And we eventually found him. It was very moving. The workers who were there happened to be U.S. Army Graves Registration personnel. They formed a nice corridor and so they brought the body off of the mountain for the family.

And so, you know, that was one that stands out most recently. 

Listen to the full conversation above.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler, Sarah-Joyce Battersy and Samira Mohyeddin. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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