Disaster response in the 21st Century: Send blankets, food, and DNA

The Camp wildfire is now the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. 153,336 acres burned over the course of 17 days.  In response to the devastation of the fire individuals and institutions mobilized to provide aid and donate necessities.  Historically donations take the form of household items, housing, or financial assistance.  Added to this list is a more unusual request, a plea for DNA.  Family members of those who are missing from the fires are urged to provide DNA samples to aid in identification efforts. These recent efforts represent a two decades long shift toward prodigious DNA collection efforts in the wake of large-scale disasters.  As widespread DNA collection becomes standard procedure in response to tragedies we should be mindful in the rush of recovery efforts to ensure that the collection and storage of both physical materials and DNA databanks are conducted with appropriate safeguards.

According to the Butte County Sheriff department, as of November 27th, 88 people were believed to be dead, and 158 people remained missing.[1]  By January 10th86 fatalities were confirmed by the department, and only 3 people remained missing.[2]  With the fires extinguished, locating and identifying remains of the dead is now a prime focus of the department.  Unfortunately, this process is a daunting one.  Sheriff Korny Honea noted that “many of the remains we’ve located have been nearly completely consumed by fire….What they’re recovering is bones and bone fragments.”[3]  Sorting through the ash and charred remnants of a home to even locate human remains is, and will, prove a daunting challenge.  Of the “85 fatalities, 36 have been tentatively identified, and 46 have been positively identified” according to the Sheriff’s department at the end of November.[4]  By mid-December those numbers had risen to 86 fatalities with 22 tentatively identified and 61 positively identified.[5]  Once remains are located, ideally DNA evidence can be extracted to positively identify missing individuals.  Identification is, however, only possible if the Sheriff’s department can draw matches from a database of samples provided by relatives.  In the case of the Camp Fire officials knew that it would prove challenging to collect viable DNA from located remains because fire is particularly damaging for DNA evidence.  The unexpected challenge of the process is collecting sufficient samples from relatives to secure matches for the DNA profiles that were successfully extracted.[6]

The county has issued pleas and held information sessions to encourage family members to donate their DNA to identification efforts.  Yet, it appears family members remain reluctant or unaware of the need for donated samples as the county is still in need of hundreds more samples.  In the wake of press coverage around the power of familial identification in the wake of the Gold State Killer case, it is perhaps not surprising that individuals have privacy concerns about contributing DNA to police departments.

In the case of Butte county some of these concerns might be alleviated and at the same time heightened by the county’s decision to partner with a rapid DNA sequencing company, ANDE.  ANDE has developed a field-ready devices that can perform sequencing in roughly 2 hours.[7]  ANDE is a privately held for-profit company and it is unclear from news reports if, and how, the company is involved in databases.  On the surface it appears that the company is exclusively involved in deploying their sequencing machines.  The actual data, then, is controlled, for better or worse, by the Sheriff’s department.

What is intriguing about ANDE’s process is that, according to their website, the machines do not generate a full genetic profile, but rather a very curtailed “DNA ID.”[8]  A DNA ID is capable of ascertaining gender, biological relatedness, and identity.  It does not contain sufficient detail to make health predictions or inferences.  Yet, although less informative, DNA IDs are a powerful tool for identification that if improperly handled could be used for other identification purposes.

This concern should not, however, deter families from donating.  Police departments will need to rise to the challenge of managing these databases.  Particular policies pertaining to DNA collected in the wake of tragedies should be put in place.  Notably all data collected should be destroyed after investigations involving collected remains have concluded.  This is, however, a process that could in the case of some widespread disasters continue for many years, and deeper consideration may need to take place in these circumstances.  The New York City medical examiners office still maintains a depository of DNA for identifying victims from the September 11, 2001 attacks. Donating families should also have the option to request samples are destroyed at any point.  The FBI maintains a database of familial DNA to assist in the identification of missing persons.  Records are maintained by the FBI “until one of the following happens: (1) the missing person has been identified; or (2) the family member who voluntarily provided the DNA sample is determined not to be related to the missing person; or (3) the family member who voluntarily provided the DNA sample requests in writing that it be removed.”[9]

The task of locating and identifying all of those who perished in the Camp fire and future tragedies  is an important one, in which I hope extended family members will come forward to assist.