California Turns to War-Zone DNA Test to ID Fire Remains

(Bloomberg) -- Authorities in California have turned to a DNA-testing technology designed for war zones to help identify the charred remains of victims of the state’s deadliest fire in a century.

At least 77 people are dead and more than 900 remain missing after the Camp Fire swept through the Sierra foothills town of Paradise, destroying more than 11,000 homes and scorching an area hundreds of square miles wide. Many victims were burned beyond recognition, making identifying remains a difficult task using traditional DNA-analysis techniques. Those samples typically must be shipped off to a laboratory, and the identification process can take weeks -- if it works at all.

So the Butte County Sheriff’s Office called in ANDE, a firm that specializes in rapidly analyzing DNA from the field. The company uses what amounts to a lab in a box. About the size of an office printer, ANDE’s Rapid DNA instrument is tailored for use in places like war zones or crime scenes, where it’s often essential to process samples quickly or a lab isn’t accessible. The company says it can identify a DNA sample in two hours or less. It’s the first time the technology has been deployed in a natural disaster since the company was founded in 2000.

“The greatest concern was the fact that so many of the remains were badly decomposed or badly degraded,’’ said Annette Mattern, chief communications officer of ANDE, which has offices in Longmont, Colorado, and Waltham, Massachusetts. “We’re dealing with fire, which is the worst-case scenario when you’re trying to extract DNA.’’

ANDE has about a dozen employees stationed on the ground with search-and-rescue teams in Butte County and in Sacramento to help identify remains as quickly as possible. As recovery teams search debris, they turn over tissue and bone fragments to the ANDE team. The fire continues to burn.

Cheek Swabs

Authorities are requesting that family members of those missing give cheek swabs to help identify the dead. From those swabs, ANDE builds a reference database to compare with the DNA samples extracted from the tissue and bones of victims. ANDE has seven Rapid DNA machines on site in California, and each can automatically process the DNA and then generate a genetic profile to determine whether samples from the field match any donated samples.

One reason the process works so quickly is that the test looks only at a few spots on a genome to determine a match. That’s a far smaller amount of data than that used by testing companies like 23andMe, which look at hundreds of thousands of places on a genome to answer a wide array of questions.

“We create a DNA fingerprint,’’ said Mattern. “Once a match is made, if it is made, then we will provide that information to the coroner.’’

But, she said, the company needs many more samples to identify all the remains. ANDE is currently working with the sheriff’s office so that relatives who live outside the area may donate a genetic sample as well.

In the past, ANDE’s technology has been used in military operations, and to help identify sexual-assault suspects and victims of child trafficking. It was developed with input from agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Defense.

In disasters, identifying the dead is often a long and painful process for families. ANDE has volunteered its services, Mattern said, in hopes of making that task less harrowing.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.