"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 chairman and president of La Jolla-based Newland Homes, a developer that sells lots to builders.
The wildfires destroyed more than 3,600 homes and killed 24 people.
Contractors and workers in the construction trades were busy even 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 home 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.
Newlyweds Gilbert and Jessica Flores lost their home in the San Bernardino Mountains and hope to rebuild in the same neighborhood. They worry that the onset of winter and scarcity of quality contractors will delay those dreams.
"I'll probably wait until the spring, and I'm sure everyone else will be looking to do the same thing," Gilbert Flores said.
He also is concerned that wealthier fire victims will be able to get a head start on rebuilding, securing the best contractors early.
"I've never built a house, so it's going to be a learning process, as well," he said.
California's last catastrophic wildfire, in 1991 in the Oakland Hills, destroyed 3,175 homes and apartments. The quick rebuilding led to allegations of shoddy workmanship. Similar pitfalls could lie ahead this time.
Fire victims should "watch out for people asking for large down payments and then taking off with the money," said Bob Tuck, a board member of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning National Association.
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 the pavement, leaving some roads unstable.
In some easier-to-reach areas, production builders plan to offer groups of homes with similar floor plans and materials. The strategy is designed to keep labor and material costs low at a time when they're expected to rise because of the sudden demand.
Such a plan could work in areas such as Scripps Ranch, a northeast San Diego subdivision where 150 homes burned. Some fire victims already are working together, asking builders to offer three or four floor plans, said Cheryl Shaw, an escrow officer who lost her Scripps Ranch home and plans to rebuild on the same lot.
Some of her neighbors want custom homes and are scrambling to find contractors.
"I'd rather walk into someone's model and say, 'This will work for me,"' Shaw said.