When you’re in your 70s and just survived California’s deadliest wildfire, how do you start over?
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.
“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.
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.
Silence hangs over Paradise,Calif., after the explosive Camp fire burned through Butte County and claimed 23 lives. Residents have not been allowed back.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
President Donald Trump meets California Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom at Beale Air Force Base on Saturday.(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
US President Donald Trump views damage from wildfires with Paradise Mayor Jody Jones in Paradise, Calif.(SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump walks with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., left and FEMA Administrator Brock Long, right, as he visits a neighborhood impacted by the wildfires in Paradise, Calif.(Evan Vucci / AP)
President Donald Trump tours the Woolsey Fire ravaged neighborhood on Dume Drive in Malibu on Saturday.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles TImes)
President Donald Trump, second from left, tours the Woolsey Fire ravaged neighborhood on Dume Drive in Malibu.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles TImes)
From left, Johnny Hardin, 15, Madeline Hardin, 13, Donita Hardin and Erik Hardin, 15 months old, get ready to sleep in their car after getting displaced by the Camp fire, at the Walmart parking lot in Chico, Calif.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Alexandria Wilson, 21, kisses her dog Harley, after they both escaped the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Search and rescue teams inspect the grounds of a house burned by the Camp Fire along Boquest Boulevard in Oroville, Calif.(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Volunteers hand out supplies to fire evacuees near a Walmart in Chico, Calif.(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
People go through donated clothes at a Walmart in Chico, Calif.(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
A sign warns looters at the site of burned-down properties in Paradise, Calif.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A search and rescue team combs through the debris for possible human remains Friday at Paradise Gardens, in Paradise, Calif.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Alexandria Wilson, 21, consoles her boyfriend, Jacob Golden, 25, as they recount their harrowing escape from the Camp Fire at a relative’s house in Applegate, Calif.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A vanished neighborhood in Paradise.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A forensic team investigates the site of a Paradise home where remains were found.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Michael John Ramirez hugs his wife, Charlie Ramirez, after they found her keepsake bracelet while sifting through the remains of their home in Paradise.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Religious figurines sit atop a burned vehicle in Paradise.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Authorities recover the remains of a fire victim from an overturned car alongside Pearson Road in Paradise.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
David Neeley hugs his ex-wife, Jeanne Neely, and their daughter, Faith Neeley, 10, in a parking lot in Oroville, where they are staying amid the Camp fire.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Megan Butler, 26, and her daughter Aurora, 2, are homeless after their house burned down in Concow in the Camp fire.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Yolo County Animal Services Officer Stephanie Amato holds a chicken she helped rescue in Paradise.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Smoke fills the sky as the Camp fire continues to burn along the North Fork of the Feather River. It has already burned more than 200,000 square miles.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A sign in Paradise offers a warning for would-be looters.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A man rests at a shelter at the Church of the Nazarene in Oroville, Calif.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Outside of Pulga, Calif., on the North Fork of the Feather River, the Camp fire continues to burn.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Outside of Pulga, Calif., on the North Fork of the Feather River, where the Camp fire may have started, helicopters do airdrops while ground crews try to keep the fire from spreading.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighter Brian Carter of Weed, Calif., keeps an eye on the flames along the North Fork of the Feather River.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Many people don’t want to stay in shelters because they can’t take their dogs inside. This dog waits for his human companion in a parking lot in Oroville.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Residents of Paradise, Calif., try to get through a roadblock to check on their home but are turned away. People haven’t been allowed to return to the town.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The Camp fire burns along a ridgetop near Big Bend, Calif., on Saturday.(Noah Berger / AP)
Yuba County sheriff’s officials carry a body away from a burned residence in Paradise.(Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)
A crew from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection walks through the rubble of a home while putting out hot spots in Paradise, Calif.(Mason Trinca / For The Times)
Flames and embers, pushed by strong dry winds, set the town of Paradise, Calif., ablaze. Thousands of buildings were destroyed.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Brad Weldon, 63, waits for help along Skyway in Paradise, Calif. Weldon was among the residents who stayed and battled the wildfire.(Mason Trinca / For The Times)
Fire crews put out hot spots in Paradise, Calif.(Mason Trinca / For The Times)
Firefighters walk through the rubble of a home in Paradise, Calif.(Mason Trinca / For The Times)
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.
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.”
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