Construction

With thousands of structures needing to be rebuilt in Napa and Sonoma counties because of October’s wildfires, a shortage of contractors is expected. Construction is seen at this Napa commercial development at West Pueblo and Solano avenues on Thursday afternoon.

J.L. Sousa, Register

Napa and Sonoma counties already have a rivalry when it comes to wine. Now the two counties will be fighting over something else: contractors to rebuild homes lost in the October fires.

Rebuilding the more than 14,700 homes and other structures damaged or destroyed in the North Bay by the October wildfires is a monumental effort that will take years, according to construction industry experts. Another looming problem is the shortage of licensed contractors who are available to do the work.

“It’s devastating,” said Tim Murphy, CEO of the Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange. “We expect this will be at least a decade or more for these communities to get back to where they were before the fires.”

The homes and buildings destroyed by the fires will be rebuilt, said Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange. “The big issue is how soon.”

“The construction industry will be very robust in the next three years, easily,” said Mike Zimmer, the chief building official for Napa County.

As a result of the Great Recession, “the availability of talent was already stretched and is now stretched even more,” said Murphy.

“We lost tens of thousands of skilled tradespeople” during that severe decline in building, he said. “Not all of those people have returned to the construction industry in home (or) commercial building.”

According to Murphy, there are currently an estimated 1,500 licensed general contractors in Napa County, but not all general contractors build houses, he said. Some specialize in commercial buildings or schools. Plus, “They might have already work in the pipeline they are committed to.”

“There are not enough contractors or workers to accelerate the rebuilding process as quickly as we’d like,” said Woods. “And that’s a very bad place to start.”

“Most contractors that I know were extremely busy before the fires and then along comes the biggest rebuild project in North Bay history,” said Woods. “It’s going to be a long, slow process.”

He’s already been in touch with other contractor associations to see if his group can reach others who can take on jobs.

“We’re going to have to cast a wider net” to find workers, he said.

In addition to a lack of workers, a rush for materials could impact costs.

“There is a concern with that level of demand, it might cause some spiking in prices of basic building materials or the availability,” said Murphy.

“Rebuilding from a disaster like this is a going to require all the level best efforts from government to the construction industry and from insurers and material suppliers,” said Murphy.

“Do the local jurisdictions have the processes in place that allow for streamlined permitting and inspections? Are the local building supply houses and material providers able to mobilize and get enough materials coming into the area (and) not cause prices to spike?” asked Murphy.

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Zimmer said his office was prepared to meet the demand for permits and inspectors.

“We believe we have all the staffing necessary and (have) additional agencies on retainer to bring in on at a moment’s notice,” said Zimmer. The county is also offering an expedited permit center.

Zimmer cautioned locals about choosing a contractor.

“The best advice is to make sure they are licensed, bonded and insured in the state of California and are in good standing with the Contractors State License Board.

The demand will likely draw developers from outside of the Bay Area or outside the state who specialize in rebuilding after a disaster. Some contractors will work on more than one recovery project, grouping the work for efficiencies.

“An individual informed us the other day they already have 14 clients” that he’s helping rebuild, said Zimmer.

“That’s not uncommon.”

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Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.