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Paradise, Calif., Faces Labor Shortage

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week marks one year since the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, the Camp Fire in Northern California. The town of Paradise was almost completely leveled by the fire and is working to rebuild. It's seen several roadblocks along the way, from polluted drinking water to damaged septic systems. And as Sonja Hutson from member station KQED reports, there is a shortage of construction workers to rebuild homes and businesses.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: Wearing a bright orange Ridge Construction T-shirt and work boots, Jon Hornback is standing in the middle of a Paradise home he's rebuilding. As of this day, it's just a foundation and wood framing.

JON HORNBACK: Where we're standing right now is in the middle of a kitchen/dining room - living room area.

HUTSON: This is one of two homes he's currently rebuilding. It's all that his local construction company can handle because so many laborers and tradespeople were displaced due to the fire. Some workers from Sacramento and the Bay Area have offered to come to Paradise, but Hornback says they were asking for around $80 an hour. That's much higher than the $50 hourly rate that's standard in Paradise.

HORNBACK: Yeah, it makes it kind of tough because, I mean, you're paying somebody an awful lot more than you normally would to do the same job or you just struggle along with the help that you have.

HUTSON: Hornback has opted not to hire workers from out of town because his clients and other Paradise residents can't afford the extra cost. Kate Leyden is with the Chico Builders Association. She says the labor shortage is acute. More than 13,000 homes burned in the Camp Fire. This, in a county that was used to only building around a thousand new homes per year.

KATE LEYDEN: So we're pretty sure we don't have the right number of workers.

HUTSON: Leyden is helping to build a database to connect contractors and workers, who often have to be highly specialized.

LEYDEN: And then when a general contractor is looking for a plumber, ideally, he or she will be able to look up the plumbers in this directory and give them a call and see if they're available to help.

HUTSON: Home values before the fires averaged about $260,000, according to the online real estate company Zillow. That's a far cry from the average home value in the Bay Area - almost a million dollars - which is why many residents can't afford more expensive out-of-town labor.

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HUTSON: Usually, an average house here would need a crew of six people to build, but Michael Richardson is one of just two rebuilding this house.

MICHAEL RICHARDSON: It's frustrating. The first house that we started, they want to move in by Christmas. We're two guys (laughter), but we're going to try our hardest to make it happen.

HUTSON: The house Richardson is working on today is not going to be done until the spring. The owner is Bill Sharrett. He's anxious about the construction setbacks and the possibility that the project could be delayed even more if it's not watertight by the winter.

BILL SHARRETT: It's very frustrating. We currently live in Oroville. We have our mother- and father-in-law that live with us. They have a bed in the living room. So it's a tough condition to be in. And the sooner we get up here, the better.

HUTSON: Sharrett, who's lived here since the 1970s, says it's hard to see Paradise rebuilding slower than he expected. He doesn't know how long it'll take for his town to come back, but he wants to be a part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.