Contractors, electricians, masons and other tradesmen are in such short supply that victims of the Southern California wildfires may have to wait years to rebuild their homes.
"Contractors are stretched thin today. In Southern California, business is healthy, and it's difficult to get good contractors in normal economic situations," said LaDonna Monsees, vice chairwoman and president of La Jolla-based Newland Homes, a developer that sells lots to builders.
The wildfires destroyed more than 3,500 homes and killed more than 20 people. Contractors and workers in the construction trades were busy before the wildfires. While many workers are expected to pour in from other states, the number is expected to be far too small to handle the thousands of new customers.
"It's going to be tough," said bulldozer driver Jim Birdsell. "There's only so much of us to go around." Most homebuilding in Southern California is done by companies that erect tracts of dozens or hundreds of homes at a time. They buy vast parcels of land, acquire materials in bulk, offer a limited number of designs and work fast.
The big builders plan to take part in some of the larger-scale reconstruction. But those types of builders are ill-suited to help the many homeowners who lived in the countryside in scattered ranch-style homes or mountain cabins.
"If all the folks who lost their homes decided to rebuild their home on their lot, that is going to take a lot longer than 12 to 18 months, because the production builders like myself are not going to be involved in that process," said Steve Doyle, president of San Diego-based Brookfield Homes.
Even if homeowners find a builder, delays in getting started are expected to be frequent. It could be weeks before some areas are even safe enough to enter. The flames destroyed guardrails, and the heat was so intense it boiled the oil out of pavement, leaving many roads unstable.