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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Outdoor Fire Features Are Hot

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

Remember that three-week landscaping project we started in early January? Well, four weeks ago, after three months of huddling, planning, and asking the Pope for permission, the landscapers finally put shovels in the ground and tore out every plant in the backyard.

This is the kind of destruction men call progress. In fact, the yard has never looked worse. Our once average, if uninspired, backyard, which I would warmly welcome back at this point, has become a filthy dirt lot lined with grave-deep trenches for gas lines. We haven’t seen a worker in days.

The site is idle because “we’re waiting for an inspection,” which is contractor code for “we can’t get back to your job right now.”

The alleged inspection is for the gas line that will allegedly fuel, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, the yard’s centerpiece: a 48-inch round cement fire bowl that my husband and I envision ourselves sitting around with friends and family, looking at stars and making s’mores – in our wheelchairs wearing bibs.

“Our yard will never be finished,” I whine to my husband, DC.

“We’re not that far behind,” he says, trying to put the project in perspective.

“Getting new landscaping is like being pregnant,” I say to anyone who will listen. (No one).

“You’re stretched to your breaking point, have chronic heartburn, and the only thing that keeps you going is knowing that no pregnancy lasts forever, though you think yours might be the first.”

“Your backyard is going to rock,” our landscape contractor keeps telling me. “That fire feature is going to be killer.”

As the contractor tries to pacify me, I try to pacify the neighbors, who are almost as fed up with the big dig as we are.

“What’s going on with your backyard?” they politely ask.

“We’re in a competition to be named the next Great Dust Bowl, and we’ve made it to the finals.”

Every day, the wind scoops up a layer of fresh dirt and coats the back of the house and patio with sand and grit. When the dogs go out, they come in a different color.

When DC and I go outside to survey our lot, we wear masks, which, thanks to the coronavirus, we have a hearty supply of. We stand where the fire bowl will someday go, and dream about how nice it will be. To have a fire. In August. In Florida. That, a prayer and a stiff drink get me through.

As I hold onto my fire-bowl vision, I look into the growing appeal of outdoor fire features, not just bowls and pits but also fire tables, and find out what others should know before they add a little fire to their lives.

  • Why a fire feature? “As a landscape designer, my goal is to create something visual that draws you outside, and nothing draws people outdoors like a fire,” said Tony Evans, owner of Orlando Landscape. “Fire is so magnetic, especially at night. Some of my best times have happened while sitting around a fire with friends.” Tony Dannhauer, general manager for Outland Living, of Vancouver, BC, agreed: “If you’re looking for a centerpiece for your outdoor experience, I can’t think of a better one. People have been gathering around a fire since the dawn of time.” Over the past several years, sales for outdoor fire features have climbed steadily.

  • Pick your pit. Whether portable or permanent, metal or stone, wood or gas burning, fire bowls come in a wide variety of styles, shapes, sizes, materials and prices. Outland’s steel fire bowls have a utilitarian look and are for “everyman,” said Dannhauer, whose products sell through such outlets as Amazon, Costco and Wayfair. The no-nonsense portable, propane-fueled, fire bowls come in one color, black. They range from 18 to 24 inches in diameter, and sell for $100 to $200. On the other end of the spectrum are architectural quality bowls, that come in a variety of finishes, and can be several-feet wide, weigh several hundred pounds and cost several thousand dollars.

  • Choose your fuel. Most firepits use wood, natural gas or propane as fuel. Wood is simple and authentic, but wood fires take time to build and tend, and leave you smelling like smoke, Evans said. (That would play havoc with my Estée Lauder fragrance.) “Gas fires give you the luxury of a fire without having to burn wood,” said Dannhauer. That’s important in cities that have bans on burning wood outdoors. Wood costs about three times what propane costs for the same amount of burn time. Natural gas is cheaper than both, but installing the gas line can be expensive (and a hassle). However, unlike a propane tank, your natural gas line won’t run out. In gas models, lava rocks dissipate the gas and distribute the flame across the rocks.

  • How hot do you want it? If you’re after heat, propane is more compressed, so burns hotter than natural gas, Dannhauer said. Homeowners who want great ambience but less heat, like those in the sunbelt, for instance, might prefer natural gas, which burns cooler, while those in colder areas might lean toward propane.

  • Locate with care. Fire bowls need room. “If you only have a 10x10 yard, you can’t throw a fire bowl in,” said Evans. You also don’t want to put a dinky firepit in a huge yard. Mind the scale. If you plan to sit around your fire feature, allow ample room for chairs. Don’t place the fire bowl on a combustible surface (like a wood deck), and be sure the surrounding surface is noncombustible for at least three feet. Also allow plenty of clearance above the flame. Don’t place the fire pit under low-hanging branches or eaves. Then get out the marshmallows.

CAPTION: Hot Trend – The popularity of outdoor fire features, including fire bowls and fire tables, has grown steadily over the past decade as more homeowners want to add magnetic warmth to their yards. Photo courtesy of Outland Living.

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