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  • courtesy of OW Lee Co.

    Four overstuffed chairs around a portable propane-fueled fire pit by OW Lee. Simple and comforting.

  • Courtesy of HPBA

    Imagine the gathering wou could have with this gas-fired pit - outside but close enough for quick jaunts indoors.

  • Home Depot

    For those who wish to burn wood, a simple yet decorative and functional fire pit by Hampton Beach.

Fire pits, other flaming features catch on

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4CALIFORNIA LIFE

Water's cool, but now, fire's hot.

Just as bubbling fountains became ubiquitous backyard accessories, outdoor fire features have become the newest must-have addition.

"Before, almost no one asked" for a fire feature, said Sacramento landscape designer Michael Glassman. "Now, almost everybody asks for it. Fire adds another element to the yard. It adds ambiance and the drama of the flames. It gives you another reason to go outside."

Glassman estimated that out of his last 50 customers, "45 wanted some sort of fire element," he said.

That demand is reflected in a recent survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects. Among outdoor design features expected to be most popular for the year ahead, 95.8 percent of survey respondents rated fireplaces and fire pits highly. The only feature that ranked higher: Backyard grills.

"It's a social center," said Buzz Homsy of California Backyard. "People don't want to spend all their time at the patio table or dining area. (But) people want to stay outside, especially in good weather."

Last year, Homsy's Sacramento-based company sold more than 500 high-end fire pits and other fire features, mostly from Agio International and California-based OW Lee, and priced $500 and up.

"In California, fire pits are a year-round business," Homsy said. "But primarily, there's more interest in early spring and late fall. They're a way to extend your outdoor season. You can enjoy a crisp evening outdoors."

Like the backyard grill, fire pits have become upscale, made to match any patio furniture with such features as automatic ignition and a propane tank hidden in a pull-out drawer. In an outdoor setting, they create instant impact with the push of a button.

Because of restrictions on burning wood, propane- or natural gas-burning fire features have become the most popular options in Northern California.

"You can use them any time," Homsy said. "You can even cook on some of them."

Fire pits have morphed into "fire furniture" – fire tables, fire bars and fire banquettes. The flame area is surrounded by porcelain tile, decorative metal or natural stone. Slate is popular, too.

"They're not 'pits'; they're furniture," said Don Massie, outdoor living expert for Green Acres Nursery and Supply. "They can be chat height (such as a coffee table), taller like a dining table, or even bar height. Manufacturers of patio furniture almost all are coming out with fire tables, too."

At its new Folsom store, Green Acres added high-end fire furniture – mostly priced $1,000 to $4,000 from such makers as Outdoor Concepts and Oriflamme. It was an instant hit.

"We've done very well with it," said Massie, noting that the store will expand its selection later this month.

"Once we get a few days in the 60s, people are ready to get back outside," Massie noted. "During the winter, we all get a little stir-crazy. We start selling patio furniture in January. People want to spend their time enjoying the outdoors."

The Home Depot also has seen a surge in fire pits, particularly in the west. Among its best sellers: Hampton Bay's wood-burning Collette fire pit ($149).

"It's definitely a rising trend," said Stacey Spillman, Home Depot's national merchant for patio and pool. "In California, they're popular year-round. We see customers buy simple basins in multiples for outdoor parties. But we're seeing more interest in fire pit tables with room for drinks or fire pit chat sites with matching chairs.

"The other major trend is pits fueled by propane," she added. "You don't have to actually build the fire, but you still have the great look of the flames."

Sacramento's prime fire pit season runs October through April, Spillman said.

"When that first chill hits in fall, we see a spike in sales," she said. "We see another spike when people want to go back outside."

When shopping for fire features, first decide what you want – easy flame or heat? Wood-burning pits put out more warmth.

For wood-burning pits, "you've got to get one large enough to actually build a fire," Spillman said. "You absolutely have to have a cover or spark screen and a poker to move wood around. Look for proper ventilation – holes to allow the fire to burn. A good pit is not just a chunk of metal. And you want a sturdy stand – it is fire. You don't want it crashing down."

Propane-burning fire pits and tables have less fuss, but produce less heat.

"Most customers ask: Do you feel the heat?" Massie said of the gas models. "Yes, but it's not like a heater. You're really getting it for the ambiance. Most of the heat is going straight up."

In these gas-powered fires, the flames burn through "logs" (much like a gas fireplace), lava rock or glass.

"The glass is really beautiful," Glassman said. "The fake logs used to be the only option, but now you can get fire glass in all different colors. It really gets the drama going on. It takes the flames to a whole another realm. I love it."

Fire features raged through the recent International Builders Show in Las Vegas.

"At the show (designer) home, there were outdoor fire pits, fireplaces, fire pots," said Leslie Wheeler of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. "There was something at the front door, the balcony off the master bedroom, by the pool. For our manufacturers, it's probably the fastest-growing category."

Like barbecue grills, fire features start simple; a portable metal fire pot – something to carry to the beach or use at a tailgate party – starts at under $50.

"There's something for every pocketbook," Wheeler said. "For under $100 or $200, you can get wood-burning fire pits that you can pick up and move anywhere. Or you can have a fire pit in a coffee table or barbecue island, or create something built-in with natural gas.

"When you think about outdoor living, fire is a natural addition," she added. "You need something to cook on, something to sit on and something to keep you warm. Fire creates atmosphere. It's cozy, calming, relaxing – and that's what people want."

Glassman sees interest in fire as a natural complement to water.

"It's the whole idea of natural elements and materials – water, fire, earth," he said. "People want a combination of fire and water."

For a Sacramento-area home, Glassman & Associates recently completed a "fire fountain." Accented by sculpture, a center fire bowl is surrounded by cascading water. The effect: Instant drama.

As part of this same fiery trend, outdoor fireplaces also are growing rapidly in popularity. People have outdoor kitchens; now, they want outdoor living rooms.

Fire pits aren't for everyone, Glassman noted. A fireplace with a screen for protection might be a better option.

"If you have little kids, stay away from fire pits," Glassman said. "They have a tendency to put their hands in it. A fireplace is safer."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Debbie Arrington

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