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One year later: How we've changed

This is part of a report on the one-year anniversary of the October 2017 wildfires that forced tens of thousands to flee quickly and destroyed thousands of homes. Read more personal accounts from business and civic leaders as well as updates on the economic recovery.

Business as usual has taken a decided detour from the norm for local lumber and building suppliers since the October 2017 wildfires.

After a lull through the holidays and winter months, there was a six-month period of relatively slow demand for lumber and other construction materials — except for those seeking plywood and weatherproofing to cover partially destroyed roofs, windows and also to prevent unauthorized access.

However, the pace of rebuilding activity started to rebound in earnest five months ago, evidenced by visible construction activity in Santa Rosa's Coffey Park, Mark West and Larkfield neighborhoods, Mendocino County's Redwood Valley and other areas with widespread devastation from the blazes that sweep through the North Bay.

According to Melanie Fivella, manager of Bedrossian Tile & Stone off Highway 12 at Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa, sales are way up for porcelain tile that looks like wood planking as an alternative to traditional wood or laminate flooring.

Homeowner and contractor rebuilding activity got a late start due to time lags in reaching settlements from insurance companies and the inability to find enough available contractors for home repairs or new construction.

For many home and business owners with burned homes and retail outlets, property security is at the top of the list of first steps taken prior to new construction, according to Bruce Berry, owner of Berry’s Sawmill in the west Sonoma County community of Cazadero.

“Requests from those seeking materials for perimeter fencing — and even decking surfaces — is way up, increasing our overall business by 10 percent over last year,” Berry said.

While he says the pipeline of new home construction candidates is filling up, and building permits continue to increase, the labor shortage is another limiting factor, despite the fact that more money is becoming available this year.

“The dispute arising from the Trump Administration’s displeasure with the previous NAFTA agreement and the imposition of higher tariffs has definitely affected prices for imported wood from British Columbia, but the possibility of a pending settlement has moderated prices somewhat,” Berry said, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Eric Ziedrich, owner of Healdsburg Lumber Company, agreed.

“(E)very aspect associated with our building material transactions is moving faster now than 12 months ago, with our current sales volume 25 percent larger than in 2017,” Ziedrich said.

He said earlier this year, lumber prices were at an all-time high, especially for Canadian products.

“This really impacted us," Ziedrich said. "Twenty years ago a lot of lumber was produced in Northern California, now we rely more on wood from Oregon and Washington state as well as from (British Columbia) suppliers. Pricing peaked about three or four months ago — from the highest level we have seen since the 1980s. However, the number of new homes and those being rebuilt is way below historic levels."

For other building materials suppliers, such as Burgess Lumber, emphasis has shifted away from what was once its core business centered on the provision of Redwood and cedar decking, railing and fence materials to greater emphasis on framing studs, plywood, engineered lumber and structural building materials for homes.

“This shift in our product mix was definitely influenced by the fires,” said manager Adam Burgess. “Previously, we were not a big framing yard, but times change and emergencies can cause a sudden realignment of inventory.”

One year later: How we've changed

This is part of a report on the one-year anniversary of the October 2017 wildfires that forced tens of thousands to flee quickly and destroyed thousands of homes. Read more personal accounts from business and civic leaders as well as updates on the economic recovery.

He said in normal market times, ordering just-in-time supplies to replenish inventory is an industry practice.

"Now we are striving to obtain a three-to-four week supply so we don’t run out," Burgess said. "Another glitch in the supply chain is that there are fewer drivers at mills in Oregon today on hand to deliver wood products to us, which has also resulting in having to increase our inventory levels by 60 percent."

Burgess said new laws requiring hardy board products, sprinkler systems and fire retardant materials has also pushed up costs associated with rebuilding, including the pending 2020 state building code changes.

“What is interesting to note is that the lumber and building supply business has become more personal," Burgess said. "We now find ourselves placing even greater emphasis on building and maintaining relationships. The fires enhanced this approach since now our friends and colleagues need new homes, and many contractors have associates that also lost dwellings, to say nothing of the more than three dozen businesses that were destroyed in Sonoma County. We’re doing everything we can to take care of them."