DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We now know more than 60 people died in the Camp Fire in Northern California, and more people are missing than we thought. Authorities now say 631 are unaccounted for. The hope is many just lost touch after fleeing, but human remains are being found and need to be identified. And Dr. Jim Wood is trying. He's a California dentist and an expert in using dental remains to make positive IDs. I talked to him outside yesterday, in Paradise, Calif., where he said one challenge is that many dental records have burned away.
JIM WOOD: The challenge we're going to have here is the lack of dental records. So you have the town that has basically been grossly damaged by the fire. A lot of dental offices were destroyed, but there are half a dozen that have survived. And so our efforts are trying to get in touch with people. We've got a list of the missing people. Are these your patients, and can you get us a dental record? So that as we recover remains and document the after-death condition of these, we can begin to make the comparisons. And that's the big stumbling block for us right now.
GREENE: What records does my dentist have that would allow you to take one of my teeth later and realize it's me?
WOOD: X-rays. Yeah.
GREENE: X-rays. OK.
WOOD: We work exclusively from X-rays. We can give, from the written record, what we'll call a possible identification, but the positive identification for dentistry is based on comparative dental X-rays.
GREENE: They're very unique. I mean, you can tell immediately. If you look at - what, like one tooth, you can look at an X-ray and...
WOOD: One tooth with the right restoration. We prefer to have, obviously, more to work with. I have made identifications based on a single tooth. But I'll be honest with. I'm a lot more comfortable when we've got more to work with.
GREENE: Can you give me kind of a list of some of the tragedies you've been involved in and done this?
WOOD: I've been to World Trade Center. I went to Hurricane Katrina. And then I've worked on the variety of wildfires here in California now. In Katrina, we ran into the same kind of problem we're facing here, is the lack of antemortem records. A lot of the records in New Orleans for the Ninth Ward - remember the Ninth Ward? - were housed at the LSU School of Dentistry in the basement. And so the basement was flooded, and so we only made, I believe, about 120 identifications dentally in that disaster.
In Sonoma County last year, I think we did - some of the 23, 24 identifications of the 44 victims came from dental. Another that we use which is valuable, and that's artificial joints. Those joints often have serial numbers which can be traced back to who put them in, where they were manufactured. That's really...
GREENE: These are, like, metal hips or metal knees?
WOOD: Yeah. Hips and knees.
GREENE: OK. And those things survive fire and...
WOOD: Yeah. They do, fortunately.
GREENE: This has to be tough work at times.
WOOD: It's grim. You know, I think for me, I think the 9/11 was probably, you know, early in my career, was extremely hard. Very, very emotional. Last year was more so 'cause it was really personal. This is my community. The streets and the addresses of the people that we were identifying were familiar to me. I didn't know any of the victims. It was more emotional.
And I think when this fire started on Thursday, Friday, I started to get that feeling again - uh-oh, here we go again, as the weekend went by and realized that this was going to be a huge event. And so I was actually out of the country and cut my trip short to come back and be here to help.
GREENE: What's the emotion you have when you positively identify?
WOOD: You know, it is - that's an interesting question. It's relief. It's good. We've done something. And I think for me, I've been doing this for a long time. It's all about bringing closure to a family. If you're a family member and you don't know where your loved one is, it's really difficult, I think. And as bad of news as law enforcement has to pass on - I don't do that - as they pass it on, there is a professional satisfaction to know that we at least began to help people bring closure to their loss.
GREENE: Dr. Wood, thank you very much.
WOOD: Thank you. Thank you very much.
GREENE: Dentist Jim Wood is working to identify fire victims in Northern California.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.