Home & Design September 11, 2008

Pits Against Nature

Fire pits allow entertaining outdoors no matter the weather.
“There’s something about a fire—the warmth, the light flickering—that brings people close together. It’s different from sitting at a dining room table.
And, invariably, someone will bring out a guitar . . . ”

“I would never have a house without a fire pit,” says Susan Seder. “It extends the time we can be outside at night in the spring and fall. And it’s a wonderful place for friends and family to sit around and talk.

“There’s something about a fire—the warmth, the light flickering—that brings people close together. It’s different from sitting at a dining room table. And, invariably, someone will bring out a guitar . . . ”

Seder isn’t alone in her enthusiasm for fire pits. They’re a hot commodity right now, as Wood River Valley residents seek to extend their living areas outdoors.

Essentially, it’s like putting a family room outdoors.

“Everyone’s chasing the fire pit,” says Terry Roth, who co-owns Warming Trend of Idaho. “The outdoors has become an extension of the house.

Everything’s going outside and that includes fire pits, barbecues, electric heaters—even outdoor refrigerators.”

The fire pits range from those people have dug in their backyards and lined with stones or granite blocks, to artsy chimneas—traditional Mexican heaters made of clay that sit on a stone or stucco base.

Pat and Patti Carter dug a fire pit in the expansive back lawn of their East Fork Road home, put a copper bowl in it and lined it with stone. The fire pit has long been a hit with the grandkids, who love to roast wieners over the fire or scorch marshmallows for s’mores.

Preston Ziegler sunk a three-foot-diameter fire pit in a stone patio outside his sister Rachel Ziegler’s home in Zinc Spur. Then he built another elaborate three-foot-diameter fire pit, which he incorporated into a patio in the corner of his own nearby backyard.

He completed the look by setting elegant padded wicker chairs around the fire pit, which is situated near a meandering creek.

Like her brother’s, Rachel Ziegler’s fire pit would be lovely enough to look at in itself. But hers is accented by a waterfall that gurgles into a pond filled with koi.

The waterfall and the trees that tower over the scene make visitors forget there’s a highway just on the other side as they stare hypnotically at the flames flickering out of the lava rock.

“It’s real nice for entertaining,” Rachel says. “It’s a place to congregate during a barbecue and it’s so convenient—throw a match in and it lights up.”

Custom-built fire pits, like those the Zieglers have, look very much like part of the yard and can certainly add value to the home. But they can cost several thousand dollars to build and can be difficult to clean up after a rain if they’re not covered.

Far less expensive—and easier to clean—are portable fire pits, which range in price from the $60 discount store versions to very elegant ones costing several hundred dollars.

Portable ones have their advantages. They can be taken to the woods or to the beach. Here in the Wood River Valley people have even been known to loan them to friends for backyard parties as nighttime temperatures edge downward at summer’s end.

Portable fire pits take a variety of shapes—round, rectangular, and square.

They sit on squat legs or longer ones. And they’re made of a variety of materials, including stone, copper and iron.

Some dealers tout copper—generally, the priciest—as the most durable and the easiest to maintain. But copper can melt or change shape in extreme heat.

Three-sixteenth-inch sheetmetal or metal is a good bet, says Tammy Pittman, whose California Fire Pit is carried by Warming Trend of Idaho.

“Ours are among the most expensive of the portable fire pits on the market, retailing for between $599 and $699. But you get what you pay for,” she says. “You can pay $60 for a fire pit at a discount store, but you can count on having to buy another one in a year. They’re made of thin metal that burns through. Or they’ll simply fall apart.

“Ours are built to last. I’ve never had one burn through. And they’re welded together by hand, rather than assembled in some foreign country.”

Gas fire pits are the easiest to use—they can be turned on and off instantly with the push of a button or the turn of a knob, they produce no embers or ash, and there’s minimal cleanup. Gas fire pits are also the easiest to move around and one of the few options in a community like Sun Valley that doesn’t allow wood-burning fire pits.

People in some parts of the country are using a squeeze gel in place of propane or natural gas, adds Terry Roth, co-owner of Warming Trend of Idaho.

Some homeowners jumble lava rock in their fire pits; others, sand. Decorative glass is especially popular right now, giving fire pits a contemporary look when the glass is scattered on top of lava rock. >>>



A ring, some stones, kindling and flame and you have an outdoor entertainment center.


Portable fire pits should be put on non-combustible bases, such as granite, fire brick or ceramic tiles. Metal can get extremely hot, radiating heat at the bottom. This can scorch the grass and burn wood, making them unsuitable for wooden decks.

The heat from fire pits has also been known to cause porous brick, concrete blocks, slate and sandstone to explode and sealed patios to bubble. It also can cause bricks to change color.

Avoid rubber pads, says Pittman, even though marketers say they can withstand heat up to 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I tested one and it made a real mess, melting into the concrete and leaving  rubbery, black burn marks,” she says.

Screens offer a measure of safety, as do spark guards, which prevent sparks from jumping out. Local fire department guidelines require homeowners to situate them anywhere from 10 to 25 feet away from their homes and to locate them safely away from trees, bushes and fences.

Fire pits should never be left unattended, either, and there should be a fire extinguisher nearby or a hose stretched out to the fire pit.

“We get pretty good south-prevailing winds at night so you wouldn’t want a fire in a fire pit to flare up after you’ve gone to bed,” says Ketchum Fire Department Captain Tom Acona. “And a bucket of water is not enough.”

There are a variety of fire pit covers, including waterproof canvas covers. Perhaps the most versatile are wooden tops made of redwood, teak and other woods that can double as table tops should someone want to set their drink on it while lounging in a lawn chair. Some have wheels, which make them especially portable. >>>



Some come with griddles that cover all or part of the fire pit for cooking pancakes, French toast and eggs.

Others have kettle hooks suitable for hanging pots of chili or stew, hot cider or cocoa. Still others have barbecue grills that can be removed when the cooking’s done to allow diners the after-dinner ambience of a fire.

“What’s happening is that people want to use the outdoors as another kitchen, essentially turning the outdoors into a whole new room during summer,” says Kathy Roth, co-owner of Warming Trend of Idaho.

The California Fire Pit, which makes lockdown fire pits for all of Idaho’s Forest Service campsites, makes a 30-inch-diameter Super Grill, which allows the grill to be raised and lowered throughout the barbecuing process.

The grill is particularly popular among Californians and Texans who barbecue big slabs of ribs and other big hunks of meat, says Pittman.

The California Fire Pit also offers a welded foot-rail so people can put their feet up by the fire without burning their tennis shoes.

“We were one of the first in the business—we’ve been making ours since 1969. But the popularity of fire pits really took off about 10 years ago,” Pittman says. “Last time I counted, there were more than 580 manufacturers.

“A lot of people don’t have time to go camping. But they build a fire in their fire pit—or simply turn the fire on—and it brings their family outside, away from the TV, giving them some quality time together.”

Check with your local fire department before installing or buying a fire pit.

Sun Valley, for instance, does not allow fire pits dug in the ground—it doesn’t allow open burning for fear of sparks getting into the shrubs.

The city allows outdoor fireplaces in some cases, but these must be approved by the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. Portable fire pits are allowed only if they use natural gas logs.

Hailey requires a 25-foot clearance from the property line, buildings and combustible materials, including shrubs. Portable fire pits should have a 3-inch clearance off the ground and a screen over the top to keep embers from igniting something.

Those in a pit need to be lined with rocks. Ketchum requires fire pits to be 3 feet in diameter or less. The fire department requires a clear space around the fire pit of at least 10 feet. No burning trash or grass in a fire pit, either—the smoke coming off the trash smells bad. And burnt paper can float away, starting a spot fire.

It’s also a good idea to tell your neighbors you’re installing a fire pit to avoid a rash of calls to the fire department when you start it up, Ketchum Fire Capt.  Acona says. And it’s best to avoid using the fire pit starting about the second week of August as flammable materials begin to dry out.

“Neighbors tend to panic once it gets dry outside,” he says.

Of course, some people never actually use their fire pit for an actual fire, says Pittman. “They just like the look of it sitting in their backyard.”

Karen Bossick was introduced to the value of a good portable fire pit when someone brought one to her neighbor’s carnitas party. It quickly became the most popular item at the party next to the margaritas.



This article appears in the Fall 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.