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The sun was beginning to set as Jim Wood stepped out of the examination room at the Sacramento morgue and walked into the lobby, white surgical booties covering his shoes.

He’d keep working there late into the night, but was taking a short break from the solemn task of identifying bits of human remains gathered from the rubble of the horrific Camp Fire.

Wood is a forensic odontologist—a dentist specially trained to identify dead bodies by examining teeth. He’s also a Democratic state assemblyman from Sonoma County. Those dual responsibilities have put him on the frontline in tackling two enormous, heart-wrenching puzzles: identifying the people who perished this month in California’s deadliest wildfire, and figuring out what state policies could prevent such catastrophes in the future.

“I thought that last year was really, really awful,” Wood said of the wine-country fires that killed 44 people, including some whom he identified through dental records. “I don’t think anybody expected that this year would be way worse.”

This summer Wood served on the special legislative committee that crafted a $1 billion plan to prevent wildfires—an amount he argued wasn’t sufficient for the massive task at hand.

For years before he was elected to the Legislature in 2014, Wood was a family dentist. Along the way, he sought extra training in forensic odontology and eventually became one of just 100 people in the United States who are certified at the highest level in the trade. He traveled the country to help identify victims of America’s worst disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Sept. 11 attack on New York.

More recently, Wood has put his skills to use a lot closer to home. Last year, he helped identify victims of the massive fire in Santa Rosa, just down the road from his house in Healdsburg. Last week, he was surveying the damage in Paradise, where the Camp Fire killed at least 83 people and destroyed 13,800 homes. Now, with the Legislature out of session, Wood is stationed at the coroner’s office in Sacramento, part of a team of forensic specialists who are examining the remains arriving from Paradise in body bags.

Teeth. Roots of teeth. Metal crowns and porcelain fillings.

“Most of what I’m seeing today are the roots of teeth. In these really hot fires, the enamel, or the white part of the tooth, often pops off the tooth,” Wood explained as he spoke in the lobby of the morgue.

“While those roots and parts of the teeth will survive, the jaw bone that supports the teeth is often burned away. So what we get are a bunch of teeth, but no way to associate them. So we use our knowledge of anatomy and the shapes of teeth, and I reconstruct. I look for a way to figure out how they would have looked in the mouth."

Wearing a white lab coat and rubber gloves, Wood arranges the dental remains on a big examination table. After he reconstructs a mouth, the next phase of detective work begins: Gathering dental X-rays and other records of people on the missing-persons list, and matching those images to the remains in the morgue.

It’s been difficult, Wood said, because many dental offices in Paradise burned up in the fire, and with them burned the records that could help identify victims. But he’s scouring other sources for X-rays that were saved electronically. Some 563 people remained on the missing-persons list as of Nov. 21, a number that has been fluctuating dramatically.

Mark Essick, sheriff-elect of Sonoma County, said Wood was a key player in helping law enforcement identify victims after the fires there last year. The sheriff’s department calls him in to help solve other cases that involve dental remains.

“He’s kind of a wizard,” Essick said. “He’s magic at what he does in helping us identify people.”

In between the infernos of last year and this year, Wood served on the special legislative committee focused on wildfire prevention. With his calm demeanor and measured tone of voice, he sat through long hearings on forest management, utility liability and emergency alert systems. He pushed for spending more money on thinning forests, something he said would benefit his rugged district that stretches from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border.

During the hearings, Wood didn’t publicly discuss his work identifying constituents who died in the brutal flames. But at one point in a late July hearing, he lost his patience.

“People are dying,” Wood said to Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker, who had just described a lengthy bureaucratic process for approving utilities’ fire-mitigation plans. “I don’t want to be here five years from now, when millions more acres may have been burned in California, and many, many more lives have been lost, wondering what the heck were we doing. So I apologize for my passion. But … this is my district. This is where 44 of my constituents died, and I don’t want to see any more die.”

Authorities said 16 of last year’s fires involved Pacific Gas and Electric equipment, creating the possibility that the company will face billions of dollars in liability. PG&E and other utilities were intensely lobbying the wildfire committee this summer, seeking a change to liability laws and a plan to help them avoid bankruptcy by spreading their costs out over time. In so doing, they showered politicians with campaign contributions, San Francisco Giants tickets and steakhouse dinners.

Wood was the only fire committee member to return PG&E’s campaign donation, forgoing its $1,000.

“I know how some of my constituents feel about PG&E,” Wood said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable taking the contribution.”

The cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been identified, but PG&E reported problems with its electrical lines outside of Paradise just before the fire broke out.

Wood is urging that wildfire prevention continue to be a focus when the Legislature reconvenes. He wants the state to do something big—and quick—though he acknowledges that he doesn’t yet know what that should be.

It’s likely to be a painstaking process, but as Wood heads back into the morgue’s exam room, he seems to have become accustomed to painstaking work.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Environment

In 2008, Paradise was spared.

That June, a fire broke out in one of the canyons southwest of the Butte County town and quickly roared east, up and over the ridge. Thousands scrambled to evacuate, clogging the single road to safety. A sudden wind shift allowed firefighters to cordon off the flames, but the experience left residents intimately aware of the risks of living in Paradise.

State lawmakers have been aware of the risk, too. In color-coded fire-hazard maps maintained by Cal Fire, Paradise is a bright red island in a churning sea of pink, orange, and yellow—all denoting various levels of danger.

“It is not a great feeling … to have highlighted an area for its vulnerability, and then having this come to fruition,” said Dave Sapsis, a Cal Fire researcher who helped designate the state agency’s “Fire Hazard Severity Zones.”

As California grapples with an increasing possibility that the once-in-a-century wildfires that have torched Paradise and Malibu are becoming once-a-year occurrences, larger swaths of the state’s population may find themselves living in the crimson regions of those maps. This presents lawmakers with a dilemma: Should they impose costly and politically unpalatable regulations on homeowners, and rip up existing infrastructure—or simply accept the risk?

“We’ve got to take intelligent precautions in how we design our cities,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a press conference with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week. “The zoning and the planning has to take into account the threat of fires, (and) the building of appropriate shelters, so that people can always find a way to escape—and then of course, (there are) all the things we’re doing to mitigate climate change. All of it. It’s a big agenda. But what we’re paying this week is a very small fraction of what is needed over the years and decades.”

With wildfires growing ever more ferocious—a product of a changing climate, forests increasingly packed with dead and dry kindling, and the encroachment of development into state’s wilderness—it can be hard to tell which parts of California should be considered safe anymore. Coffey Park, the suburban subdivision of Santa Rosa that burned in last year’s firestorms, was designated a low-fire-risk area by Cal Fire.

The agency is now in the process of updating its hazard maps, with an expected draft publication date of next summer.

For state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose district includes Santa Rosa, this year’s fires raise a number of “difficult yet necessary” questions about where and how communities are placed—and then replaced.

“What type of rules and regulations will there be if homes will be allowed to be rebuilt?” he said. “For example, defensible space, landscape restrictions, no longer allowing developments to be built with one way in and just one way out. … If there have been multiple fires over multiple years, are we truly going to rebuild?

“Being very candid with you, the discussion has just begun—but this is a discussion that we are going to have to have, because this is the new reality,” he said.

Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco has championed giving the state more power to override local planning decisions to meet statewide housing goals.

“Job one is to help the people whose lives have been so dramatically altered by this disaster, but we also need to look at the long-term picture of this new normal,” Wiener said. “Historically, we have allowed local communities almost complete autonomy in making housing-related decisions, whether that decision is not to allow new housing, whether that decision is to ban apartment buildings, or whether that decision is to allow a lot of housing in very fire-prone areas.”

Wiener says he is not suggesting that development be banned outright anywhere, but that the state should impose standards that “reflect our needs as a state and reflect risks.”

Between 1990 and 2010, an estimated 45 percent of all new housing units built in California were constructed in what experts refer to as the wildland-urban interface—where the state’s cul-de-sac’d suburban subdivisions and rural communities meet its flammable forests and shrub fields. The encroachment of homes into undeveloped areas creates a much larger and challenging front for firefighters to defend.

“You get this very different fire dynamic once it gets into a heavily populated area,” said Anu Kramer, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-authored the research upon which the estimate is based. “You have cars on fire, propane tanks exploding, and burning houses radiating a lot of heat, which can contribute to neighboring houses igniting. That’s very different from trees and shrubs burning in a forest.”


Strict rules for new homes, but not the old

California already has among the strictest fire-minded regulations on construction. Since 2008, any building constructed in areas designated at very high fire risk must be built with specific roofs, vents and other materials designed to resist fire and keep out flying embers. Homeowners are also required to maintain a perimeter of brush-free defensible space around their houses.

Legislation passed this year extends those restrictions, without exception, to development on local as well as state land. Cal Fire also operates a consulting arm for local governments hoping to make more fire-appropriate land-use decisions.

But some of those regulations were written with a certain type of community in mind, said Kramer: “Vacation homes in Tahoe with wood roofs and pine trees over the house. … A lot of the regulations are geared towards that quintessential idea.”

The charred homes of more urban enclaves such as Malibu and Santa Rosa were not destroyed by “a giant tsunami wave of flame,” said Chris Dicus, a Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo professor and president of the Association for Fire Ecology. Instead, they burn “from the inside out after embers get inside the house through vents and windows or under doors.” Those embers may have traveled from the front of the original fire miles away.

While many existing regulations require new construction be “hardened” to embers, they don’t apply to existing homes. That leaves many of California’s at-risk communities stuck with old, fire-prone homes, and inadequate or constrained infrastructure.

“We’re currently paying for the sins of the past, where subdivisions and other developments were built without fire in mind,” said Dicus.

Some changes are relatively easy to make even after construction: installing ember-resistant vents, weather-sealing garage doors, and clearing flammable items like lawn chairs off the property’s perimeter can keep embers from starting new spot fires. Other changes are pricier: regular brush clearing, double-paned windows to reduce radiant heat inside a home, replacing wood roofs with metal, and installing fire shutters.

You have a lot of homeowners who “maybe can’t afford to upgrade and retrofit” their homes, said Molly Mowery, president of Wildfire Planning International. “We know now what keeps us safer, but you can’t just change that overnight.”


Homeowner help: Subsidies, rebates and discounts?

One possible solution, said Sen. Wiener: the state could help current homeowners make those changes.

“What we don’t want to do is force people out of their homes because they can’t afford—for lack of a better phrase—a ‘wildfire retrofit,’” he said. He added that he would consider “subsidy and rebate programs … but I don’t want to pretend like I know what all the answers are.”

Absent new government assistance, insurers could encourage homeowners to be more fire-conscious. In the same way that health insurance providers might offer their policyholders discounted gym memberships, home insurers could cut a deal for those who install ember-resistant vents.

But only one major insurer in California currently offers discounts to encourage fire-safe behavior. According to a recent RAND Corporation report, that’s because most providers argue that state regulators don’t let them charge homeowners living in high-fire-risk areas a high enough premium to justify a discount. The state Insurance Department counters that such rate hikes wouldn’t be justified based on the evidence.

The study also found that most homeowners in high-risk areas are just purchasing less coverage and opting for plans with higher deductibles, leaving them more exposed.

And then there are changes that homeowners alone cannot make.

Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council, spent last year promoting the region’s evacuation plan, so she knew what to do as soon as reports came in that fire was moving toward Paradise.

“I had turned on the town’s AM 1500 radio station, and they were notifying residents that an evacuation center had been set up and that certain zones needed to be evacuating,” she said. “So I felt kind of calm … like, ‘Oh, this is how the plan was supposed to go.’”

But that plan soon met a bottleneck on Skyway, the main route out of Paradise.

DeAnda said she got on the road at around 8:20 a.m.—along with hundreds of her neighbors. She wasn’t out of the foothills and away from the spot fires popping up along the side of the road for an hour and a half. It’s a drive that would typically take her 25 minutes.

Nearly a dozen of the bodies identified in the devastation left by the Camp Fire were found in their cars, stuck in the crush of evacuation traffic.

Paradise had an evacuation plan. But the plan, and the town’s cramped, 19th-century layout, were not prepared for a fire of such intensity or speed. And in that respect, Paradise is not alone: The hills above Berkeley and Oakland, where 25 people died in a fire in 1991, also featured narrow, winding roads that made escape more difficult.

“I worry about another deadly fire in the East Bay,” said Kramer, the researcher. “It burned before, and it’s going to burn again. And when it does, it’s going to be really bad.”


To rebuild … or say ‘enough is enough’?

In the aftermath of fire, local governments often face an impossible task of balancing the need to rebuild as quickly as possible—to get those who have lost everything back into their homes—with the need to prepare for the worst.

After three fires raged through the foothills of Butte County in 2008, including the one that prompted the first evacuation of Paradise, the county Board of Supervisors made the building code more flexible for homeowners to rebuild: Homeowners could have their permit applications expedited, and use lumber located on their own property for construction. This summer, the board renewed and expanded the exemption.

The building code carve-out represents a necessary compromise between smart planning and the needs of homeowner, many of whom could not afford to build a new house up to the current code, said DeAnda. Without the exemption, she said, many homeowners would have likely replaced their burnt homes with modular houses or trailers, which she said often present a bigger fire risk.

DeAnda, who spends most of her time raising awareness about fire safety across the country, lives in one such “ancient mobile home” in Concow, just east of Paradise. “It’s going up in 8 minutes if it catches on fire,” she said.

“There is a lot of emphasis, and understandably so, on prioritizing getting back to normal,” said Dr. Miranda Mockrin, a research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service who has studied how communities respond to wildfire. She said most local governments avoid using building restrictions and regulations, instead favoring less-coercive, voluntary fire safety programs and educational outreach.

But rebuilding is a slow process. If communities want to require more fire-conscious development, “there is time,” she said.

For Chris Coursey, the mayor of Santa Rosa, which lost some 3,000 homes last year, there was never a question about whether to allow the incinerated communities of Coffey Park and Fountain Grove to rebuild.

“Under state law, people have the right to rebuild a legal home that they lose in a disaster. We don’t have the ability to tell them that they can’t rebuild” he said.

Nor would he want to, he added.

“If you live in California, you’re going to face an earthquake or a fire or a flood or a mudslide at some point—there’s no way to mitigate all of that risk,” he said.

Santa Rosa officials, he added, are trying to drive more development into the city’s downtown, away from its more-vulnerable edges. Since last year, nearly 60 homes have been reconstructed. They’ve been built up to the new, municipal fire codes, and many homeowners have elected to use more fire-resistant materials. But Coursey said only so much can be done to prepare for catastrophe.

“I think we’re more fire-aware; I think we’re more fire-ready,” he said. “But if that wind and that combination of low humidity and high temperature and high winds happened again, I think we’re vulnerable.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment