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When you're in your 70s and just survived California's deadliest wildfire, how do you start over?

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 11/20/2018 Maria L. La Ganga
a dog sitting on a bed © Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

Some losses cannot be tallied on an insurance claim form.

Lilli Heart has spent much of the last five days curled up in bed in the spare room of her best friend’s house with her cats, Keeper and Kinde. She is safe. Her friends have all been accounted for.

She has finally learned that her home and workshop are gone, turned to ash when the ferocious Camp fire tore through Paradise. There is no more wondering.

She is 70 miles from the devastation. She did not have to sleep in the tent city that sprang up in the parking lot of the Walmart in Chico. She will be dry when the rains come. She is grateful.

She also is a little paralyzed, nine days after the fire. She is an artist, and she lost more than just the tools of her trade, her ability to make a living, in the worst wildfire in California history.

She also lost a part of herself in the flames that took so many homes and lives. She is 72, and she cannot see a future. At least not yet.

These are the victims of the California wildfires »

“I wasn’t feeling old two weeks ago,” she said Saturday. “I don’t know what’s next. I haven’t formulated where I should be. I don’t have a vision of where I should be. Because I had a vision. And I made it happen.”

And now it is gone.

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As she texted to a longtime friend, “I have really never felt so scared and alone. I know my Daddy was a survivor of Dachau and I always felt like if he could go through that I can survive anything. I am not so sure now. I feel very tired and hope my spirit will come back.”

It is one thing to start over when you are 35 and surrounded by family. It is quite another to lose everything in your eighth decade, when you are long divorced and have no living relatives.

When you’ll have to survive on the $300 Social Security pays you each month unless you can find a way to work again. When you cannot imagine anyone hiring you. When all you really know how to do is create beautiful things.

“I don’t feel strong now, like I used to,” Heart said, as she scrolled through her Facebook page looking for pictures of the house that is now gone. There’s one of the kitchen. Of the deck. Nothing more. “I don’t feel like, oh, I can do this, like, I can handle this. ...

“I’ve never been in this position,” she said. “I’ve been in bad positions, but I’ve always had my tools, my work.”

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea has refused to comment on the demographics of the dead and the missing, about who was most affected by the flames and why, about how vulnerable some residents were, people like Heart, who said she never heard evacuation orders because her hearing’s a little iffy, or those who were less mobile because of age.

Look at the list of the missing, Honea has said. That list, as imperfect and ever-changing as it is, makes one loud, clear point. The number of missing has dropped to nearly 700, but at its peak early Sunday the list was 26 pages long, with 1,202 entries.

And of the 430 people on that iteration whose ages were known as of early Sunday, 61% were 70 or older.

The Census Bureau pegged pre-fire Paradise at about 26,000 people, a quarter of whom were 65 or older. Still, Honea recently bristled at media descriptions of the town as a “retirement community.”

Realtor Maurine Johnson takes just as much umbrage.

“I don’t consider it a retirement community,” Johnson said Sunday evening as she headed into the vigil for the men and women who died in the Camp fire — 79 and counting, including at least two of her friends. “I’ve been there since I was 16. I’ll be 80 on the 26th.”

Johnson lost her home, her realty company, at least one of her rental properties. Her children lost their homes. Many of their children did, too. One granddaughter has a real estate office in Chico and has offered to have Johnson set up shop there.

“But how do you start over?” asked Johnson. “I don’t know.”

Heart does not have Johnson’s deep roots in the Sacramento Valley or her network of extended family. She spent most of her life in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she grew up across the street from Claudia Damon. Damon, also 72, opened her home to Heart after the fire.

Heart moved to Paradise three years ago, with her 6-foot roll-top desk and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of vintage and modern Swarovski crystals. She loves the way their facets refract light, creating color where none existed.

That desk made it through one other fire with Heart, in 1976, but it is gone now. Heart wonders whether some of the crystals may have survived, if she could sift through the ashes and find them.

Maybe that way, she thinks, she could start creating anew, revive her EBay and Etsy stores and move forward.

“I have to work,” she said. “I was planning on working until I die. I loved what I was doing. I felt like I was doing a service. ...

“I like to make people happy with my work, and have them have rainbows in their homes and have joy. That was part of my joy, working with crystals and rainbows and angels.”

Heart worries, though, that her creativity is gone, yet another casualty of the Camp fire. And she mourns the plans she and her closest friend had dreamed up.

Damon is a hair stylist and can work anywhere. Her husband died nearly three years ago. She had planned on selling her home here. She’d been looking for a house in Paradise.

Heart: “We’re not old ladies yet, but I want to be an old lady with you.”

Damon: “We can still do that. Just not in Paradise.”

maria.laganga@latimes.com

Twitter: @marialaganga

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