Tony Gust sits on a laminate floor assembling a black bookshelf while his 2-year-old son Nicholas giggles beside him.
On the porch of the wooden rental home in Smithville, plastic bags filled with clothes and shoes lay untouched. New donations come in almost every day from friends and family across the state, even relatives the Gusts haven’t spoken to in years.
“We probably have 35 new toothbrushes,” said Alicia Gust, Tony’s wife, who he calls a “professional volunteer.” “Same with tubes of toothpaste. I will never have to buy toothpaste again for the rest of my life.”
Of the 40 homes on Cardinal Loop in Bastrop, where the Gusts lived, only three remained after the fires blew through on Labor Day.
Within a couple of hours, the fire reduced their two-story limestone home to little more than a slab.
Without social security cards or birth certificates, the Gusts are starting over.
They say the community response has been incredible and local organizations have tried to help the displaced families settle back into routine, but they are still restless in their new surroundings.
Alicia glances at the black table stacked with hangers and chairs set up in the middle of the room by the kitchen. It doesn’t look anything like the huge open kitchen of her old home, graced by ample counter space and a pot rack hanging over the island.
Mackenzie, their 7-year-old daughter, pops up behind the couch brandishing a pink Nintendo DS she got for her birthday a few days earlier. It’s playing a message recorded in her voice.
“I love you, Mommy. I love you, Mommy.”
Alicia cracks a smile and goes into her empty pantry to retrieve a basket of artifacts found at the site of their home. The eyes and hair of Mackenzie’s glass dolls have disappeared without a trace, leaving behind the hollow shells.
“I collected a lot of antiques, and not like Henry VIII foufy crap,” Alicia said, recalling her great grandmother’s china set she brought from Bavaria during World War II and pieces of rusted farm equipment she placed around her home.
Alicia’s father, Fred Moses, came down from California with a trailer to put on his daughter’s property while they sifted through the ashes. Now, he sits at the table entertaining his grandson and surveying the bookshelf construction.
Moses, a volunteer firefighter for more than 30 years, said the average house fire usually burns at 1,500 degrees, but glass melts at 3,200 degrees.
Some pieces of a china set survived the flames to be added to Alicia’s new antique collection. Alicia says the creepiest remnant is their son’s Radio Flyer wagon, which was found behind the house — a bright red spot against the ashen backdrop.
On Sept. 5, the Gusts were celebrating when the sirens went off announcing a fire the next street over from their home in Circle D-KC Estates. They got in the pool just as the winds shifted, sending a pine tree from the forest encircling their home down almost on top of the family. Mackenzie was hysterical.
“We all got dressed and just got her calmed down when the sheriff came by and said, ‘Get out. Don’t pack your things. Get out now,’” Alicia said.
Now, an eerie quiet hangs in the corridor between Bastrop and Smithville. The forest, once lush and opaque, stands thin and pierced with blackened tree trunks.
Once Tony returns to the solar-electric company where he works in Austin, he will have to make the drive every day through what remains of their town. For now, they only have to go as far as Mackenzie’s school by their old house. Occasionally, Tony catches himself wanting to take the turn toward their old home.
“It sucks,” he said. “But the good thing is, we only lost stuff and one cat.”
Like many other evacuees, the Gusts had no time to pack and didn’t think it was necessary. Tony and Alicia grabbed the kids, their two dogs and the two cats they could find before heading out to a friend’s house, then to a shelter in Paige and eventually to Alicia’s mother’s house in Wimberley.
In a fog, Alicia remembered to grab what remained of her baby blanket, her laptop and the ashes of their first child who died at birth. The crowns and banners from her pageant days are now indistinguishable from the rubble.
Looking back, it’s apparent what they would have taken.
“My father’s gun,” Tony said. The gun and some pictures on his computer were all that was left of Tony’s father, who died about 10 years ago.
“Photos,” Alicia said, recalling the five boxes of photos from different stages of their lives that she had neatly packed away. “They would have taken two seconds to grab ... and that [cherry-red] Jeep,” she added.
Weeks later, things left at friends’ houses or at stores are beginning to surface. The silly things normally forgotten now become the most important.
“In my work truck, I just so happened to have all my rock-climbing gear and a koozie and spatula and a skillet,” Tony said. “It’s just like this silly koozie, but now it’s like, ‘This is my koozie! This is the only koozie I have left.’”
It might not seem that way, but the Gust family is lucky. For the care they received after the fire, Alicia credits their insurance and the realtors who pooled together to find the victims temporary houses. Others without insurance have not been as fortunate.
But the Gusts don’t plan to move back to the place they lived — to the house surrounded by pine trees from a different region that grew “by some fluke of nature,” Alicia said.
“I have moments where I’m so grateful for this house and this stuff and that we’re safe,” she said. “But then I have other days where I just wake up crying and spend most of the day crying and go to sleep crying.”
Tony bangs a hammer against the nails to put the finishing touches on the shelf that will house some of the donated toys.
Nicholas struts across the room splashing cereal and milk onto the floor and yelling something incomprehensible.
“Are you going to eat your cereal?” Tony asks.
“Oh, you’re going to put that bug in the cereal,” Alicia laughs.
Nicholas jumps around not bothered by the spilled milk. Oblivious to the situation, he lifts up his shirt and dances for his parents.
Even with all the donations and new things they bought, the Gusts still feel like they’re in somebody else’s house wearing somebody else’s clothes.
“You just want to lay down in your bed, lay down in your hammock and watch your TV and kick your feet up on your couch,” Tony said.
“But it’s not even about the stuff,” Alicia said. “It’s not about the couch or the hammock, it’s about the feeling of home.”
Printed on Monday, October 3, 2011 as: Family copes after fires