USA – There is no road map home for the thousands of Butte County residents who lost their houses in the Camp Fire. And for those who decide to rebuild, it may be years, even a decade, before construction workers show up to pour a foundation and hammer 2-by-4s.
With infrastructure destroyed and large portions of the town of Paradise still closed off to the public, most of the 13,972 homeowners who lost their residences in the Camp Fire have many more questions than answers.
They don’t know how much insurance money they might get or when that check might arrive. They don’t have any idea when water or power might be restored to their neighborhood. They don’t know how long it will take for the charred, toxic remains of their homes to be cleared from their land, or when county authorities will deem that land safe for rebuilding.
“People are still in shock,” said Ben Eckstrom, owner of Chico’s Proframe Construction and board president of the Valley Contractors Exchange. “If you lost your home, you are still in shock and devastated and trying to figure out where Christmas is going to be.”
And even if some of these questions are answered, a shortage of construction workers in the region could lead to years of backlogs, Butte County builders warned. Area contractors and architects say the county has only a fraction of the building trades workers or companies that would be needed to rebuild so many homes, and commercial and institutional buildings, including five schools and a shopping center anchored by a Safeway in Paradise.
Census figures from May 2017 estimated that Butte County had 2,940 workers involved in the “construction and extraction” trades. The Valley Contractors Exchange, which represents construction trades in the county, says there are 346 licensed contractors employing 4,000 workers, some of whom live outside the county.
About 1,400 of those workers lived in Paradise, Eckstrom said. Right now, it’s unclear how many of those Paradise construction workers will be able to find housing in the area and stick around.
Another contractor, Bob Smalley, lost his house in Magalia but is lucky enough to have an apartment above his workshop, which survived. All but one of his 12 construction workers lost their homes to the fire. Several of the workers are staying temporarily in RVs parked in Smalley’s work yard.
“People are disjointed and have lost their center,” Smalley said. He added that a lot of his neighbors are “planning to get out of Dodge,” at least for the time being.
“I’m hearing from a lot of people who are thinking about relocating for now and keeping their property here until the moonscape goes away,” he said. “I’m going to put (rebuilding) my house on hold. My goal is to stay here and help people. It could be a few years before I know if I want to live there again.”
Brannan Hankins, an electrical contractor in Chico, said the “consensus is that it will take four to five years to rebuild the infrastructure in the worst hit areas.” Hankins lives in Chico — his neighborhood was not damaged by the fire, but the homes of four of his workers went up in flames.
“We already had a shortages of labor force because of the amount of work in Chico,” Hankins said. “Add to that the Redding fire last summer and Santa Rosa fire last year, and the problem has become worse.”
Frank Glazewski, a Chico architect, said that any rebuilding would require significant help from designers and contractors outside of Butte County.
“We have been busy as it is for quite a while, and have had a hard time keeping up with demand,” said Glazewski. “It doesn’t take much to swamp me. I am a one-man operation and have been working seven days a week for at least the last two years.”
Those hoping to build a new house quickly would get a dose of reality by looking to Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties, where the Wine Country fires destroyed more than 8,000 structures in October 2017, said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange in Santa Rosa.
Of the 5,600 homes destroyed in the Tubbs Fire, the most destructive of the dozen blazes, only 200 homes have been rebuilt and reoccupied, with another 800 under construction and expected to be completed by the end of 2019, Woods said.
“Rebuilding, we have learned, is a long, slow process no matter how quickly you want it to go,” Woods said. “We are celebrating every new house that gets rebuilt, but we still have a long way to go.”
Construction costs were about $140 per square foot before the fire but could easily double because of the demand, labor shortage and new code requirements, area builders and architects said. But at $280 per square foot, a new house in Paradise could cost $336,000 to construct, nearly 20 percent more than the average home price prior to the fire.
“Nobody is going to rebuild a home that costs more than it is worth,” Woods said.
Once the insurance payment comes through, some homeowners will reach the conclusion that their money will go further elsewhere.
“In Sonoma County the cost of rebuilding was so high for a lot of people it wasn’t worth it,” said Selma Hepp, an economist for the real estate brokerage Compass in San Francisco. “I think that will be the trend generally with California wildfires, even in less-expensive areas like Butte County.”
Many burned-out residents of Butte County might not be able to endure the wait for a home to be rebuilt.
The general housing shortage could push fire victims out of the region or out of state, according to Shelinda Bryant, a Century 21 real estate broker in both the Chico and Paradise offices.
In the month since the Camp Fire broke out on Nov. 8, the inventory of homes on the market has dwindled rapidly. On the Tuesday before the fire, there were 248 properties on the market in Chico, 91 in Magalia and 72 in Paradise. As of Dec. 4, the inventory in Chico was down to 72 homes, while there were 41 homes left on the market in Magalia and 28 in Paradise. That’s a 66 percent drop in inventory in less than a month.
“And we are still trying to figure out if some of those 28 homes in Paradise actually made it,” Bryant said.
Those who lost their place of residence are already scattering to Grass Valley, Auburn, Reno, Sacramento or Redding, Bryant said.
“We can’t absorb 14,000 people in Butte County,” Bryant said. “Not even close.”
Those who remain will also face daunting paperwork to collect insurance money, get their land cleaned up and certified, and obtain building permits.
Robert Olshansky, a professor of planning at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and an expert in post-disaster recovery, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency typically pays to to rebuild roads, parks, schools and other public buildings. But private homeowners must rely almost entirely on fire insurance money, which is a “slow process with a lot of paperwork and a lot of documentation.”
Along with paperwork for insurance claims, the first task for homeowners is to figure out how debris will be removed and their property cleaned. Over the coming months the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control will begin inspecting properties for household hazardous waste, mainly asbestos, and removing any they find.
Next, property owners have two choices. They can sign up for the government-sponsored debris removal program, overseen by Cal Recycle, or they may undertake the cleanup at their own expense through a private licensed fire debris cleanup company. No building permits will be issued until local officials sign off on the property as being clean.
And in preparing their property for a new home, many homeowners in Paradise will likely face an additional challenge that fire victims in Santa Rosa or Redding did not had to deal with: lack of a public sewer system.
As the largest city west of the Mississippi River to have no public sewer service, Paradise residents rely on upward of 12,000 individual septic systems. Experts worry that many of of the septic tanks, which sit in shallow soil resting on bedrock, will be damaged during the excavation of the contaminated fire debris.
All these obstacles — lack of labor, the time it takes to clean and prepare a lot for rebuilding, the wait for insurance money — will take their toll.
Chico architect Gary Hawkins said most of his former and potential clients have “no idea what they want to do.”
“There are a lot seniors in their 80s or 90s who can’t imagine rebuilding anything at this point in their lives,” he said “I’m getting calls from people wanting to get copies of their plans, and then you have people with no plans — houses built in the ’40s or ’50s or ’60s. They don’t know where to start.”