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Fire pit a cool way to enjoy summer nights
A "fire boulder" burns at the home of Peggy, left, and CraigSchwartz in Overland Park, Kan. - photo by Jim Barcus

Avoid fire pit pitfalls

It’s going to rain on your pit. Plan for drainage or you’ll end up with a smelly, murky mess.

Wind-blown debris will collect inside, so consider a cover for the pit when it’s not in use.

Locate the fuel controls in a place where they’re somewhat concealed but never inside the pit.

Make sure the fuel line has adequate pressure, or you’ll wind up with weak flames.

Don’t block a great view (including the sunset) with a large outdoor fireplace chimney.

Consider the typical direction of the wind so you won’t be bathed in smoke.

Think about the height of the fire vs. seating; many times the fire pit is too low for best effect.

Check local ordinances and homeowner association rules before you build or purchase. Some bylaws allow gas but not wood smoke.

It may heating up in Northeast Georgia this weekend, but that won’t stop the outdoor parties, marshmallow roasts and occasional bonfire.

Since ancient times, man has been drawn to fire for food, warmth and comfort from the dark. That attraction is still going strong, and options for gathering round a backyard circle of dancing flames with family and friends are more numerous than ever.

The once popular clay and ceramic chimineas, while still a inexpensive optaion, are being looked over in favor of gas burning stone pits and bold statement pieces.

Whether you’re looking for a small, portable fire pit in the $100 range or a large, outdoor fireplace for $10,000 or more, you’ll want to consider the full line of products available.

"It can be a daunting task for the homeowner to sort out," says Andy Wright, a landscape designer with Landworks, which works in the Kansas City, Mo., area. "The market is really evolving. We’re on the verge of many possibilities."

Wright begins by asking clients how they entertain and what goals they have for the space. Are they trying to screen something? Do they want built-in seating? What is the budget?

Ron and Amy Mertz met with him about building an outdoor fireplace in their south Overland Park, Kan., yard.

First he helped them select a basic design using various widths and colors of pavers. Next the fireplace was constructed at a factory in Wisconsin. It was delivered by truck six weeks later in two pieces and assembled on a concrete pad in about two hours.

For the Mertz family, Wright suggested attached benches on either side of the fire box, but they could have chosen built-in wood-storage boxes, or mini waterfalls flowing over the sides or a pizza oven.

The fireplace was an immediate hit. "We went from never hanging out in the backyard to being outside every free weekend," Ron Mertz says. His children, under a watchful eye, use it frequently as well, and it has been the scene of many hot dog and s’mores parties. Mertz also likes the way the pavers tie in with the materials used for their patio, steps, walls and deck.

At another Overland Park home, Craig and Peggy Schwartz were considering purchasing a traditional fire pit when they noticed a fire boulder at a nearby model home. They were intrigued and thought it would add character to their yard.

Jared Barnes, a designer with Next to Nature Landscape, steered them to Canyon Stone in Olathe, Kan., to browse its selection of pre-drilled limestone and sandstone boulders.

"The main thing to consider with these is placement," Barnes says. "Once you plumb a gas line and set a 1,200-pound boulder, you don’t want to move it."

He situated the rock at one end of the Schwartz’s patio with a water feature behind it. At the other end, his crew used pavers to build a rectangular bar with a fire tray running along the middle. Gas flames flicker through smoky black glass beads, while the fire boulder holds lava rocks.

While the Schwartz home has a custom-built fire bar, patio furniture stores often sell manufactured fire tables ranging from traditional to contemporary designs. At the upper price range — $1,200 to $2,500 — the tables feature granite tops and come in various heights: chat, dining and bar.

Some have interchangeable tops so the fire tray can be switched to a solid granite center with a small hole for an umbrella or a larger hole for an ice bucket. These tables can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, so again, placement is important.

And care is also a top priority when it comes to outdoor burn permits. While most smaller fire pits don’t require a permit from the local fire marshal, users still should take note of ordinances.

In Hall County, a permit is required of bonfires — anything five 5 by five 5 or larger. Most fire pits won’t come close to that size. Even so, it is unlawful to burn anything other than wood ( unless it is gas fueled) and that includes trash and building materials.

So what’s next in the world of fire? Wright is a big fan of fire-water combinations, now becoming popular in the Southwest. Such combinations include a stone bench encircling a fountain encircling a fire bowl, and fire pots perched along the edges of pools so the flames reflect in the water at night. There’s also an inches-wide ground-level fire bar that curves halfway around a hot tub.

"I don’t know if I’d recommend that one for my clients," he cautions. "You’d have to be careful where you step."

Still, whatever form the pairing takes, it’s hard to top the tranquil sound and look of water juxtaposed with the flicker of red-hot flames, two of nature’s most powerful elements.

The Kansas City Star contributed to this report.

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