At Home Places

Backyard Fire Pits

For the Love of the Flame

written by Lisa Tedrick Prejean
photography by Kevin G. Gilbert

Homeowners can relax by backyard fire pits, such as the Windmill Sienna by Castelle at Stover Hearth and Patio.

Autumn nights with their cool temperatures provide the perfect setting for a glowing flame. Memories made around a campfire come drifting back with a touch of tranquility as friends share lightheartedness and laughter in the outdoors.

"I think the appeal of sitting around a campfire is serenity," says Jack Rhodes, Ranger at Camp Sinoquipe in Fort Littleton, Pa. "It melts your cares away. You can start to dream and become something mystical in the flames. It's a serene environment where all is content for a moment. That is the beauty of a campfire, as well as warmth. It's a beautiful thing to warm up. It's hypnotic."

The 500-acre Sinoquipe Scout Reservation is owned and operated by the Mason-Dixon Council of the Boy Scouts of America in the mountains of Fulton County, Pa., around a 10-acre lake. Camp Sinoquipe, as it is commonly called, offers year-round camping and programs.

When Scout troops arrive at Camp Sinoquipe, starting a campfire is the first thing they want to do, Jack says. "The fire is the centerpiece, especially in winter camping. It's your cooking source, heat source, everything."

For many adults, the activities associated with Scouting and camping are merely distant memories. Unwilling to let go of those restful, peaceful times, homeowners are turning to backyard fire pits as a throwback to their childhood reminiscences of sitting around a fire with family, Scouts or summer camp friends.

"Everybody loves a fire," says Javier Rosas, owner and operations director of Chimney Sweeps of Sherwood Forest in Mount Airy, Md., which sells a wide range of products from traditional fire pits to contemporary fire bowls. "It is a great way to enjoy space that you already have with a minimal investment. It's such a nice therapeutic feature to add to your home."

Deciding on a style

While traditional campfires are enjoyable and nostalgic, most homeowners don't have time to prepare wood, build a fire and monitor it throughout the evening. Manufactured fire pits provide the ambiance without the extended time commitment.

"We find most of our customers always have time to relax for a few minutes in the evening and that is the genius of a gas fire pit, easy on and off — so you can relax and enjoy for a bit at the end of a long day," says Christie Stover of Stover Hearth and Patio in Frederick, Md.

When Christie works with potential customers, she listens to their requests and then asks questions. "The worst mistake we can make is to sell a fire pit which isn't what the client wants or needs."

When deciding on a fire pit style, homeowners first need to determine whether they want the fire pit to be permanent or portable, Javier says, adding that homeowners also need to decide between propane or wood-burning pits. While wood-burning pits have nostalgic appeal, propane might be the best option if family members have allergies or if the home is in a neighborhood where houses are in close proximity. He also notes, "With the gas fire tables, you don't have to worry about smelling like smoke at the end of the evening."

There are premade gas fire pits and wood fire pits on the market today, Christie notes. Many models can be purchased as an after-market addition to a customer's casual outdoor living space without much trouble or special requirements. On gas fire pits, propane tanks need to be replaced when empty. Ashes need to be removed in wood-burning fire pits, which also need to be proper distances from combustible materials. Conversely, at the end of the evening, embers should be checked to make sure they are safe to leave unattended. A gas fire pit's flames tend to go side to side instead of vertical, whereas a wood fire pit will constantly smoke and send ash and embers in one direction, Christie explains. Many premade wood fire pits have wrought-iron or steel component parts, which can rust over time, so Christie recommends proper placement to avoid staining.

Stover Hearth and Patio specializes in 20-pound propane tank gas fire pits. They are made of cast aluminum or extruded aluminum, which has the advantage of not rusting through and staining terraces, decks or other outdoor entertaining surfaces. "There are no embers to burn decking and the bottoms stay cool, and with a simple turn of a switch and click of a lighter, the evening is instantly transformed by the dance of flames," Christie relates. "And when your evening is drawing to a close, simply turn the ignition switch off and you are done. Nothing to worry about overnight."

With gas fire pits, homeowners can choose many different types of mediums to hide the burners where the flames originate. A popular choice at Stover Hearth and Patio is reflective colored glass. Even when there is no flame, a fire pit can become a beautiful addition to an outdoor entertaining space, Christie notes. Homeowners can find varied looks for their spaces, whether they are seeking a rustic faux log, modern clear beads or Zen river rock.

A lid is often available with gas fire pits, turning the fire pit into an additional table, around which many homeowners set four to six chairs to make what Christie describes as a "chat setting, which invites easy conversation and movement during casual get-togethers." Once a gas fire pit has cooled, there are covers that can be used if homeowners would like to use them. Also, Christie recommends wind guards to help maintain a consistent burn aesthetic if the gas fire pit is being used in a windier location.

Homeowners can put a timer on a portable fire table and have it come on at a certain time. For added entertainment options, Javier mentions a fire table that plays music while the flames dance to the beat. Next year, he hopes to have torches with flames that dance to music. Some of the newest designs have a feature that will allow music to be played from a Bluetooth signal.

A Sound Visualization Fire Burner creates a visual experience by combining music with dancing flames. This burner features a Fire Synchronization Chamber, which senses peaks in the audio and causes the flame to appear as if it is dancing to the beat of the music.

Do-it-yourself fire pits

While most homeowners opt for premade fire pits, there are those who prefer a more rustic option, which offer the sights and smells associated with an old-fashioned camp fire. For the most part, gas fire pits should not be used for cooking unless the fire pit was specifically designed for that purpose, Christie says. The medium used to cover the burners could be ruined and there would be no way to clean the fire pit afterward. "We do not sell wood fire pits of any type, so if a customer has their heart set on roasting marshmallows and making s'mores with family and friends, then we refer them to various landscapers, masons and do-it-yourself kits which are on the market."

Those who want to construct an old-fashioned fire pit need to be prepared to excavate the ground and keep safety in mind, says Javier, who offers a do-it-yourself kit in his store. "Construct it so it has the proper amount of combustion air coming in."

Jim Doyle, assistant ranger at Camp Sinoquipe, built a fire pit at his home and was able to have Scout troops and other groups over for get-togethers. Jim and his son used existing rock on the property as a base for the fire pit, which he says is 5 to 6 feet in diameter. Some trees that blew down the year before became benches that the Doyle family made for use around the fire pit.

For his Eagle Scout project, Tanner Minnick, 18, built a fire pit at his church, Beaver Creek Church of the Brethren. "My church had previously had a fire pit, but it was damaged. I love being outside. I got that from my grandfather. I wanted to do something that would help people want to be outside."

Some fire pits can convert into an additional table, such as the Live Edge Classical fire pit by Castelle available at Stover Hearth and Patio.

A graduate of the Culinary Arts Program at Washington County Technical High School, Tanner approached his pastor and the church board about his fire-pit idea. "They liked the idea because they liked having the fire pit and used it before." The project was funded in part through a memorial fund that was established at the church for his grandfather, Edgar P. Pryor.

Tanner's recommendation to anyone considering a fire-pit project is to plan ahead. "You definitely want to make sure you have everything planned out. It's a lot of work, but it's definitely worth it."

Tanner, with help from family members, Scout leaders and fellow Scouts, repaired the church fire pit, installed six park benches, a pathway with pavers, gravel around the fire pit and a retaining wall. "I installed it for church members to use it and grow closer together," Tanner says.

The fire pit is used for evening vespers and other church and community programs, says the Rev. Rachel Black of Beaver Creek Church of the Brethren. "It is very nice," she says. "It has had use and will have more use."

Fire safety

When it comes to campfire safety, Scout leaders teach their troops to clear an area from anything that could easily catch on fire, says Rich Gaver, Scoutmaster with Funkstown Troop 23. Leaders also teach how to properly start a fire, and to avoid the use of flammable liquids such as gasoline or lighter fluid. "First off, we teach them fire safety," says Rich, whose troop typically has campfire programs about once a month in the summer "wherever we happen to be camping."

He has taken Scouts to the C&O Canal, Appalachian Trail, and Camp Sinoquipe. Scouts are taught to "Leave No Trace" from their cooking fires, and many troops are using elevated fire pits so the boys can learn that principle at an early age. The "Leave No Trace" principle reminds campers to respect the rights of other users of the outdoors, as well as future generations, according to the Boy Scouts of America website, www.scouting. org/scoutsource/BoyScouts/Resources/LeaveNoTrace. aspx. With an elevated fire pit, or a refurbished wood stove, campers don't have to worry about embers flying out, Rich says.

Homeowners using fire pits should also remember that fire has the potential to be dangerous, and they should always follow their jurisdiction's codes and regulations when using a burning appliance, Christie cautions. She suggests that a fire pit be placed in an area sheltered from prevailing winds, and to "never use a gas fire pit in a closed room, or on a porch with very low ceilings or leave small children unattended."