The Urgent Need to Identify Burn Victims of Wildfires
By Dr. Dena Weiss
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
Mass casualty events such as wildfires leave communities reeling and in shock from the ensuing death and devastation. The urgent need to identify casualties falls on law enforcement and medical examiners to provide news of loved ones to distraught family members. Fortunately, there are several forensic methods available to identify disaster victims.
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The U.S. Department of Interior states that approximately 90% of wildfires are caused by careless people leaving campfires unattended, discarding smoldering cigarettes and setting off fireworks. Criminal acts of arson as well as accidental downing of power lines are also included in this percentage. The remaining 10% of wildfires are attributed to natural causes, including lightning from storms and, on rare occurrences, from volcanic lava flows.
Recent History of Wildfires in the United States
According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were 71,499 wildfires, 10 million acres burned and 44 fatalities in California alone in 2017. It was one of the worst fire years in a decade.
At 58,083, wildfire numbers were lower in 2018. But California experienced the state’s largest single fire in history, the Mendocino Complex Fire, which destroyed 410,203 acres. The Camp Fire, the deadliest in California history with more than 80 people killed, also occurred in 2018.
Statistical data for 2019 reports that between January and September, there were 39,476 wildfires resulting in 4.4 million acres destroyed.
This year has been one of the worst wildfire seasons in 70 years for California, Oregon and Washington, which had hundreds of wildfires burning, many caused by lightning strikes. Between January and September, there were 44,520 wildfires and 7.5 million acres destroyed. As of the end of September, at least 35 people have been killed and many more are suffering health problems associated with the poisonous air lingering from the fires.
Degrees of Burns Experienced by Fire
Just about everyone has heard of first-, second- and third-degree burns. Fewer know about fourth-degree burns. But what do they all mean?
- First-degree burns such as a sunburn affect the outer layer of skin and heal usually in less than a week.
- Second-degree burns permeate the outer layer of skin causing pain and blistering. These types of wounds often result in scarring.
- Third-degree burns rapidly destroy each layer of skin but stop short of piercing muscle and bone. Skin grafting and amputations are often required in such severe burn cases.
- Fourth-degree burns are usually fatal when not confined to a small area. These burns damage not only the skin layers but also muscle, bone and organs.
Inhalation of Smoke Caused by Fire
Persons exposed to the 1,100-degree heat from a wildfire are breathing air that can instantly burn the respiratory tract and lungs, causing death. In addition, wildfires produce smoke that is full of toxins that not only pollute the environment but also can cause respiratory distress and death, especially for those with chronic health conditions.
Toxins found in wildfire smoke include carbon monoxide as well as nitrogen dioxide, which harms human organs. Other lethal gases such as hydrogen cyanide and phosgene are produced when wildfires torch homes and burn PVC plastics and other household flammable products.
Kidney Failure Linked to Smoke Inhalation from Wildfires
Not all victims of wildfires, however, die as a result of being overcome by flames or smoke burning their esophagus. A recent study in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology examined the mortality rates of dialysis patients exposed daily to wildfire pollution.
The survey’s participant pool included patients receiving dialysis for kidney failure from 253 areas in the United States who were exposed to wildfires between 2008 and 2012. The study found that of the 268,399 patients who died while receiving treatment in dialysis centers between 2008 and 2012, 48,454 lived in areas affected by wildfires.
Fire Victim Identification: Fingerprints
Victims who die from smoke inhalation rather than from burns so severe that the body is charred may be identified through fingerprint analysis. There are several methods to record fingerprints, including Mikrosil casting of the ridge detail and rehydration of the epidermal layer, as well as careful separation of the epidermal and dermal layer of skin and subsequent inking of the epidermal layer to reveal the fingerprint.
Fire Victim Identification: Dental Examination
Because human teeth are resistant to very high temperatures, burn victims are often identified using odontology techniques. Postmortem dental radiographs taken with mobile dental X-ray instruments can assist forensic odontologists in categorizing oral remains.
Dental structures of the deceased can help determine the age of a victim by analyzing the presence of adult teeth as well as by their mineralization. Identification of a body can be determined by prior dental records, as well as by the extraction of DNA for further analysis.
Fire Victim Identification: DNA Extraction from Muscle and Bone
Depending on the heat exposure of the bone, there are some cases when DNA can be extracted from the muscle tissue or bone marrow without the danger of DNA degradation. The most challenging factor in obtaining DNA samples using this method is preventing the samples from becoming contaminated with foreign DNA.
Rapid DNA Identifies Mass Casualty Victims
When there are multiple victims, it may take years to identify them all. So a mobile method of DNA identification known as Rapid DNA is being used with great success. Rapid DNA analysis is completed within two hours on scene.
The devastating Camp Fire in California in 2018 was a fast-moving blaze that was burning 80 acres per minute, resulting in the destruction of 18,804 residences and businesses. Due to the intensity of the fire, traditional methods of identification such as fingerprints and odontology were used in only 22 of 84 cases. Rapid DNA technology assisted the morgue in identifying remains from the fire.
The collection of DNA samples from victims included blood, organs containing moist tissue, muscle and bone. Buccal [cheek] swabs or blood samples were used as standards for familial DNA matching. In the case of the Camp Fire, Rapid DNA analyzed 69 sets of remains resulting in 62 DNA profiles and 58 victim identifications.
Forensic science continues to stretch the boundaries of what we thought would never be possible. Whether using traditional methods of identifying burn victims or using fully automated systems such as Rapid DNA, it is fundamentally important to provide closure for family members in the most reliable and accurate manner.
About the Author
Dr. Dena Weiss is an associate professor at American Military University, teaching courses in criminal justice and forensic science. She recently retired after working 24 years as a crime scene investigator and fingerprint examiner for a central Florida police department. Prior to that position, she was a serologist for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Her court experience includes testifying in more than 200 federal and circuit court cases in over 15 Florida counties.
Dr. Weiss is also an active member of the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System (FEMORS). Her educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Sociology, a master’s degree in Forensic Science from Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a Ph.D. in Business Administration with an emphasis in Criminal Justice.