Fires were burning in Bastrop County this week, columns of white smoke drifting across the countryside as landowners took advantage of the burn ban lift.

Ever since the devasting wildfires this past summer, those of us who work or live here have felt slightly terrorized at the sight or smell of smoke. For months we lived in a tinderbox, our homes and forests one spark away from destruction. A few inches of rain these past weeks and suddenly it’s safe again to light a fire. The mind, however, doesn’t quite accept it, as if this wet stuff is a mirage shimmering on the sun-baked horizon.

That explains some of the anxiety I felt this week as I went about burning the few remaining brush piles on our cleared land. Even without the residue of the Bastrop fires clinging in the background, I’m always a little spooked by those big flames licking the sky, the roaring heat, and the taunting wind that always seems to pick up just as you light the match.

I’ve had winds change direction on me in mid burn. I’ve had embers sail a hundred feet away and threaten to set an adjacent field on fire. And then there was the time I lit a pile of dried juniper and rushed to move the tractor out of the way, only it wouldn’t start. The flames rose. The wind shifted toward me. My son Ethan had been sitting at the wheel and I started yelling – what did you touch? I checked the PTO. It was off. I made sure the clutch was depressed all the way. Still, the engine wouldn’t turn. Now I was panicking. Another minute and I would have to abandoned our new Kabota tractor. Then I looked down and saw the problem – a stick had wedged under the foot throttle, preventing it from returning to its resting position. Ironically, that safety feature had nearly caused me a heart attack. Now I never park the tractor close to a brush pile.

All across the county landowers are surveying the damage from the drought. The loss of woodlands is so extensive that they will eventually become fields or meadows. I could keep brush piles burning for a year there are so many dead trees on our property. But I’ll let nature do most of the work. The battering winds knock the trees down. The rain helps them melt into the ground. This is nature’s other method – slow but complete. I prefer it to the flames and can only hope the rains keep coming.