By Timothy Hyland
California Assemblymember James “Jim” D. Wood, DDS, a semi-retired family dentist and forensic odontologist, has years of experience in helping authorities identify victims in the wake of natural disasters and other tragic losses.
He was there, in New York in 2001, in the terrible days that followed the September 11th terrorist attacks. And he was there, too, in 2005, when the City of New Orleans was struggling to recover from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
But this past November, Dr. Wood, 58, faced a uniquely personal challenge – one that called on him to leverage his professional skills in the aftermath of the historic California wildfires. The Camp Fire, which raged for nearly three weeks straight, killed at least 86 people, wiped entire towns off the map, and directly impacted the very people that Dr. Wood represents in California’s 2nd Assembly District, ranks as the deadliest fire in California history.
Though the fires were eventually extinguished, Dr. Wood’s experience in assisting with the recovery efforts surrounding deadly fires – including his work in the aftermath of California’s previous wildfires in 2017 – reinforced his conviction that his state needs to be more proactive in its efforts to prevent such fires going forward, and in assisting homeowners who may be impacted by them. That conviction drove Dr. Wood, a Democrat, to work with Republican Assemblymember Brian Dahle to craft legislation, eventually signed into law, that will see $1 billion directed toward fire prevention efforts.
In December 2018, shortly after Dr. Wood forwarded legislation that would further buttress the state’s capacity for fire prevention, Dr. Wood talked to Incisor about his background in forensic dentistry, his work in the wildfires, and how that experience is shaping his policymaking.
What drew you to forensic dentistry in the first place? What do you enjoy about the field? And then, what drew you into the world of politics?
I was accepted at eight dental schools and chose Loma Linda University Dental School because of its mission: “Service is Our Calling.” Being a dentist offered me the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. During dental school, I learned about a Senior Seminar Series in forensic dentistry. I was fascinated, took more classes and eventually became certified as a forensic odontologist, becoming a Diplomate by the American Board of Forensic Odontology in 2004.
I am a member of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, Region 9, the co-founder of the California Dental Identification Team, and serve locally helping several Northern California Counties identify missing persons, and have served nationwide on teams responding to major disasters including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and all of the Northern California fires of 2017 and 2018.
Using my skills as a forensic odontologist allows me to help identify people who have gone missing for years and people lost tragically in disasters like the wildfires. I am gratified that my skills can help bring closure to families, both emotionally and legally.
My public service in dentistry led me to public service in my dental association. I served in leadership at the California Dental Association (CDA) and on committees at both the CDA and American Dental Association that developed policy. I became a policy geek with the goal of solving problems for my profession and the public. That led me to want to serve my community, and I ran for city council in my hometown of Healdsburg, eventually serving as mayor. Wanting to extend my reach, I ran for the state Assembly (in 2014), representing a large rural district in Northern California that includes 300 miles of majestic coastline and more state parks than any other district in the state. Early in my second year, I became chair of the Assembly Health Committee, a position I hold today.
Though the California fires were obviously a major national news story, it is probably impossible for people who haven't experienced a wildfire to understand just how frightening, dangerous, and unpredictable they can be. How would you describe what it's like to experience something like this?
Being on the ground during and after a disaster is something most people only experience through pictures and stories on the news. The fires were devastating, and the landscape looked other-worldly. You can’t find your way around – there are no street signs, no landmarks. You lose your bearings. Entire neighborhoods, thousands of houses, burned to the ground. Mementos, photographs, children’s artwork, family china passed down through generations, all gone. It’s traumatic for the families who literally ran for their lives. Even more than a year after the fires in Santa Rosa, people are still exhibiting signs of anxiety and depression – post-traumatic stress disorder.
How did you first get involved in the California fires? What are some the challenges that you have faced in terms of your work in helping identify individuals who have died in these fires?
Those fires were in my district, so even before being called to assist in the identification process, my neighbors and my constituents were directly affected. The challenges we faced in these tragic situations included how little evidence we had to work with – sometimes only parts of teeth and a lack of dental records. In some cases, the dental offices were also destroyed.
How has your experience in disaster recovery shaped your views as a policymaker? More specifically, what do you believe California needs to do to prevent these kinds of disasters going forward?
We really don’t have control over everything, but we can begin to look at ways that states, counties, cities, and the residents themselves can mitigate the severity of these disasters. We can also continue to push for environmental policies that can reduce the effect, like improving vegetation and forest management which takes a change in how we manage our lands and requires funding to make it happen. For all the good that California’s environmental policies have done in reducing greenhouse gasses – and I am a strong supporter of those policies – one major fire can emit greenhouse gasses that cancel out all that we worked so hard to reduce in the first place. And perhaps advancements in electronic health records will allow us access to a database that can be protected from fires on the ground.
Author: Contributing writer Timothy Hyland has more than 20 years’ experience as a writer, reporter, and editor. His work has also appeared in Fast Company, Roll Call, Philadelphia Business Journal, and the Washington Times.
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