Rebuilding Sonoma County: Lumber industry gears up to rebuild homes lost in 2017 wildfires

The men and women in the lumber industry of Sonoma County are tackling the challenge of their professional lives, getting critical raw materials from North American forests to thousands of anxious families and their charred lots.

In only 16 months, they’ve had to gear up to rebuild thousands of homes lost to the October 2017 wildfires.

Instead of supplying wood for an average of about 280 new houses a year, as before the fires, they ?suddenly must supply maybe four times that much, and without driving wood prices through the roof.

Can they do it? Absolutely. That’s the clear message from industry leaders.

“The rebuild will be challenging, but we have increased inventory levels and hired more employees to meet the demand,” said Randy Destruel, CEO of Mead Clark Lumber Co., Santa Rosa’s oldest and largest lumber supplier for residential contractors.

Lumber is not builders’ biggest need. It’s maybe up to 15 percent of the cost of a home.

But there’s something special about lumber, especially framing.

When those two-by-four Douglas fir timbers rise up from surrounding scorched earth, neighbors cheer. That’s when people say they suddenly feel hopeful, after months of despair.

It’s such a simple act, standing up framing lumber. But behind that simple act is the story of an unseen industry and a sophisticated supply chain that stretches from Canada to Sonoma County.

Joseph Hicks, owner of Birdseye Builders, is at one end of that chain. The joy he obviously feels as he strokes an upright framing stud and talks about his job, at a rebuild site on Darbster Place in Larkfield, is infectious.

“I love my job. I’m a fine arts major and, for me, this house is a big sculpture that people live in. People raise their families in these homes,” marvels Hicks, who is rebuilding four homes.

At the other end of that chain are the forests and the mills. For Sonoma County, that means mainly the Pacific Northwest, along the coast from Northern California to Canada.

Those mills bulked up last year, largely in response to natural disasters, and they enter this year with well-stocked inventories, they’ve told local lumber executives.

“There’s not a doubt in my mind that the muscle needed to supply builders in Sonoma County is not going to fall short,” said Dan Weaver, vice president in charge of contractor sales at Healdsburg Lumber Co., which supplies building products mainly to residential contractors from its 4½-acre yard just southeast of downtown.

This may bode well for prices. Last year, national demand drove lumber prices to record levels in June, according to Random Lengths, an Oregon publisher that tracks the industry.

But prices fell in the winter, and though they’re rising again now, Random Lengths and lumber executives don’t expect them to reach last year’s levels.

In February 2018, the average price nationwide for 15 key types of framing lumber was $500 per 1,000 board feet. By June, it was almost $600. Then it fell to $325 per 1,000 board feet in January, and on Feb. 15, the most recent Random Lengths survey, it was $377.

A 3,000-square-foot house might need roughly 17,500 board feet of lumber.

Closer to home, Destruel said he sold high-quality two-by-six Douglas fir for 85 cents a foot a year ago at Mead Clark. Today it’s 57 cents.

“Commodities fluctuate. Sometimes I can guarantee a price for 48 hours, sometimes a month. Today we can quote for 30 days,” Destruel said. To adjust, construction professionals monitor commodity markets and talk to each other a lot. That’s the national trend. But what about locally?

Some lumber executives report their sales are up 25 to 35 percent. Mead Clark rang up $82 million in sales last year, up from about $60 million in 2017. Destruel expects 2019 to be higher.

By selling more, even while keeping profit margins unchanged, rebuilding can be profitable for lumber companies. No one in the industry pretends otherwise. Companies are in business to make a profit, and recovering from natural disasters is an opportunity for the building industry.

The trick - and the companies’ obligation to their community in crisis - is to have enough inventory.

A recent walk through Mead Clark’s busy 10-acre lumber yard, off Hearn Avenue just west of Highway 101, revealed giant trucks loading and unloading piles of lumber and other wood products from international suppliers like Louisiana-Pacific, Boise Cascade and Weyerhaeuser, South Coast Lumber in Brookings, barely into Oregon on Highway 101, and others in Toronto, Idaho, Oregon, Redding and Cloverdale.

“I’ve never seen the Mead Clark yard stacked so high,” Hicks said.

Much of this lumber is being delivered to builders like Hicks in “packages.” A contractor or a Mead Clark estimator prepares a list, pages and pages long, of lumber pieces needed for a job. Then packages of that lumber, for example a first-floor package, are delivered as the builder needs them.

A normal estimating time for each package at Mead Clark is a week, but it’s currently two to two-and-a-half weeks and last year it got up to a month, Destruel said.

Builders expect unpredictable delays and price increases again this year, mainly because there’s a severe shortage of local labor.

Mead Clark has 123 employees, an increase of 8 to 10 percent. Healdsburg Lumber now has 85 employees, up roughly 15 percent. Both could work faster and cheaper if they could get more help. The industry needs drivers, counter people, loaders, yardmen, sales staff and other positions.

The “maxed out” yard at Mead Clark, as Destruel describes it, reflects a decision by lumber suppliers to prepare for the fire rebuild they all knew was coming.

“Our first reaction was, ‘Don’t be caught without material, build up inventory. It’s time to really get to work,’” said Weaver at Healdsburg Lumber. “Going up 25 to 30 percent in one year is not an easy task. We pushed ourselves to a capacity we didn’t think possible. But we have a responsibility to supply these materials.”

Jeff Logue, branch manager for Capital Lumber in Healdsburg, said he boosted his inventory from $14 million to $16 million, even though only about 10 percent of his sales are in Sonoma County.

A wholesaler, Capital Lumber distributes from Oregon to Santa Barbara and east to Fallon, Nevada. At Capital’s 18-acre lumberyard near the south end of Healdsburg Avenue, 75 employees and 13 18-wheelers move lumber that arrives from as far away as China.

Graham Picard, sales manager for Terminal Forest Products in Richmond, British Columbia, near Vancouver, visited Logue in Healdsburg in December and viewed burned neighborhoods. Picard’s company supplies Western Red Cedar.

“They need 10 to 12 truckloads per month and our intent is 10 to 12 for sure,” Picard said. But he’s reaching for 15 to 16, to keep up with anticipated need.

Sonoma County’s other two major local lumber suppliers, Santa Rosa-based Friedman’s Home Improvement and Petaluma-based Golden State Lumber, have each opened new lumber yards in Sonoma County, expansions planned for some time but suddenly vital.

Friedman’s opened a distribution yard for contractors in the Pruitt Industrial Park off Shiloh Road in Windsor, and Golden State Lumber acquired 47-year-old Burgess Lumber near the Sonoma County airport.

Logue, who grew up in Sonoma County and is helping his parents rebuild their burned home on Mark West Springs Road, knows the county’s lumber community well. He said it will meet the rebuild needs.

“Five of the top 10 lumberyards in Northern California exist in Sonoma County,” Logue said.

In addition, suppliers from outside the area - from Napa, Sacramento, even Arroyo Grande south of San Luis Obispo and Texas - are following their building contractors into the county. Logue estimated that maybe 15 percent of the lumber needed for the fire rebuild is being supplied by lumber companies outside of the county.

Asked what he’d tell lumber executives in Butte County who must rebuild after a November firestorm destroyed about 14,000 homes, Destruel said: “Be very good to your employees, pay a fair wage, and increase your inventory because a year from now you are going to be very, very busy.”

Hicks said builders must prepare to move quickly. “I’d tell builders, ‘You have to up your game. You have to get it done,’” he said. “‘You gotta hustle. There’s no walking involved.’”

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