By SHELLY WILKISON
They may never know how or where it started, but days after a devastating fire, the air is still heavy around the place that the Leger family called home for almost 20 years.
“It’s very unsettling, very strange,” said Mark Leger as he walked up the driveway toward the house.
Although the traffic on the road in front of the property whizzed by, the approach to the pile of rubble that days ago was a three-bedroom house full of life became increasingly uncomfortable with every step.
The stench of smoke and burned remnants of appliances, furniture, toys, clothes and possessions that once seemed so important now lay in heaping piles exposed to the elements.
His wife, Amanda, had just begun to unpack the boxes containing the family’s Christmas decorations. She had only had time to drape a garland over the front gate, deciding to save the rest for another day.
The Legers’ sons, Xander and Dalton, both students at Liberty Hill Elementary School, were already excited about Christmas, their mother said. They enjoyed helping her unpack the ornaments and were looking forward to decorating a tree.
Their oldest son, Zach, 19, had not returned home from a Thanksgiving trip.
Last Wednesday morning, Mark Leger was already at work at 3M in Austin when he got the call from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office that his house was on fire. It was just after 9 a.m. and by 9:30, he drove up to find firefighters dousing flames that were still ripping through the roof.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “It’s still hard to understand. It still smells like it’s burning.”
“I flipped out,” said Mrs. Leger, a fraud investigator for Zerox in Austin. She was in a team meeting planning the company’s upcoming Christmas party when her husband called with the news. Her boss rushed her to Leander where Mrs. Leger found her home still smoking and covered in foam.
“People were everywhere. My dog was on a leash, shaking and freaking out,” she said.
As she made her way through the fire trucks, her first thought was her young boys — how they would take the news. She thought about the teddy bear and a blanket that helped both of them get to sleep every night.
“They can’t sleep without them,” she said.
When the flames had subsided enough that firefighters could begin salvaging some items from the home, Mrs. Leger directed them first to the boys’ bedroom to look for the bear and the blanket.
“They didn’t burn,” she exclaimed, with the sound of hope and excitement in her voice just as it must have been the day of the discovery. “They are smelly, but I’ve been cleaning them every day.”
She said her mother went with her to pick the boys up from school last Wednesday and they broke the news to them as they brought them home.
“I told them it was okay to cry,” she said, adding that her oldest son wanted to be brave as he wiped away the tears and reassured his mother with her own words that everything was going to be okay.
“They were scared to see it, but my husband walked them around inside the house one at a time,” she said. “They saw what happens when things get really hot. They have adjusted quickly — quicker than we have.”
While the family lost most everything, Mrs. Leger said they are thankful for what she calls “little blessings” that they have come to realize in the aftermath of the fire. First, she said if her oldest son had been home, he would have likely been asleep and may not have awakened in time to escape. His room was completely destroyed.
“And we had just turned the cat loose outside,” she laughed, adding that they all agreed the day before the fire that it was time for the cat to start living outdoors. The cat, the dog and several goats were shaken by the event, but unharmed.
“This has brought us all closer as a family,” she said, adding that some photo albums were spared.
Since the fire, the Leger family has been staying with releatives in Round Rock. Committed to keeping their sons in Liberty Hill Elementary School, the Legers have been commuting from Round Rock to Liberty Hill to their jobs in Austin every morning and making the return trip in the afternoon.
Leger said that even though the commute is tiring, he and his wife are trying to keep things “as normal as possible, and minimize (the disruption) as much as we can for the kids.”
Mrs. Leger said the elementary school staff has gone the distance to take care of her children. After losing all of their clothes in the fire, Assistant Principal Shellie Brewer took Mrs. Leger shopping the following day to buy clothes, towels and blankets for the boys.
“We are so grateful to the school and all who have helped us,” Mrs. Leger said. “So many have reached out to us and we appreciate that so much.”
While neighbors, friends and even strangers have extended generous offers for help, Mrs. Leger said it’s difficult to answer questions about what her family needs.
While there are many needs, being displaced is a bit overwhelming, she said, adding that some days it is just too much to think about.
The Legers say they don’t know how long it will take, but they will return to their four acres to build another home.
Chancy Bizzell, fire chief of Williamson County’s Emergency Services District #4, said the cause of the fire is “undetermined.” Investigators could not be sure where the fire started.
“There was so much burn damage to half of the house that it was undetermined,” Bizzell said. “We believe it started on the east end, but the cause is undetermined.”
Bizzell told The Independent that by the time Liberty Hill firefighters arrived — about six minutes after the call was received — the home was 50 percent involved.
He said Liberty Hill firefighters were assisted by fire personnel from the Leander and Cedar Park fire departments. Florence firefighters provided district coverage for WCESD#4 during the four hours spent on the scene.
“While it’s hard to look at all of this, it’s just stuff and it can all be replaced,” Leger said. “But this is our home and this is where we want to be.”
The Legers said their house and contents were insured, but they are not sure how long it will be before they can begin putting their life back together on the tree-covered homeplace.
“For now, we’re just taking all this one day at a time,” Mrs. Leger said.