Create a Cozy Outdoor Space with a Backyard Fire Pit
Toasty warm gathering spots can be as simple—and affordable—as a run to Target.
By Seattle Mag January 17, 2014
As an author who writes books about science and nature, West Seattleite Lyanda Haupt relies on sharp binoculars, a clean hand lens and a pair of sturdy walking shoes. A less likely tool? Her backyard fire pit. “I love it!” she says. “It brings me outside when I wouldn’t otherwise be there.” In the evening, Haupt coaxes her family out to the circular metal pit she bought “cheap from Target” to toast s’mores while she gets a look at the moon. But she especially loves the pit during the day, when, even if it’s chilly, she scribbles in her notebook in fingerless gloves and a hat. (Using her laptop, she can even research by the flames, since her home Wi-Fi is accessible from the yard.) Without the fire pit, she says, she would miss out on some of the outdoor time that inspires her nature writing.
Not everyone expects such lofty results from what is, in essence, a contained campfire. But for many, a fire pit or its close cousin, the chiminea (a freestanding, front-loading clay fireplace that encloses the flames in a plump stove with a top vent), offers a civilized reminder of the campfire’s primal hearth. In places with moderate summers like ours, a fire pit provides a cozy place to take advantage of the long but sometimes chilly evenings, and can even offer a rustic spot for cooking.
At Ballard store Sutter Home and Hearth, which sells fire pits and fire pit components alongside wood and gas fireplaces, barbecues and indoor stoves, salesman Michael Nisbett says one of their most popular and well-made basic models is from the California Firepit Company. The Tahoe 30–inch diameter heavy-duty steel fire pit, which can burn both wood and charcoal, has lasted 15 years for some customers ($599). If you don’t require a 360-degree view of the fire, or prefer a more rustic aesthetic, consider a chiminea. West Seattle Nursery sells a charming 5-foot-tall, handmade glazed clay chiminea from Mexico decorated with whimsical sunflowers ($190). “I see it in a freewheeling backyard with fun metalwork,” says Mary Holdsworth, the store’s statuary buyer, who recommends placing it as a focal point on a patio, surrounded by chairs. Whatever wood- or charcoal-burning fire pit or chiminea you choose, it needs to be situated in the proper location, away from overhanging branches and the house, and, if it is on a deck, resting on heat-resistant tiles.
A more permanent alternative is a custom-built fire pit, which can be incorporated with landscaping to blend seamlessly into a yard. Mark Shepherd of local business Shepherd Stoneworks recently designed a fire pit as part of an extensive stonework project at a large Craftsman house in West Seattle, which also included a patio, a granite bridge and waterfall. “They wanted a nice area to hang out in, and a place to cook,” he says. (The owners sometimes top the flames with a custom-made grill.) Shepherd’s fire pit is a rectangular design and made with two basalt slabs created from a split boulder, resting on a poured cement footing. The pit is lined with mortared firebrick. Shepherd says a similarly elaborate design would cost $2,000–$3,000, but that something simpler, such as a circular fire pit of less-substantial stone, might cost between $500 and $1,000.
Though a wood- or charcoal-burning fire pit may seem like the simplest choice, hearths that burn natural gas or propane are cleaner, and may be the best option for most city dwellers. (However, gas and propane fire pits do emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases; keep this in mind when choosing the size of your pit.) Gas fire pits don’t produce the smoke and particulates that are restricted during our city’s regular burn bans. A propane-fueled fire pit can be hooked up to a small propane tank, much like a barbecue. Many of them also can be connected to a home’s gas line, as long as the pressure in that line is high enough to support the additional burden. (Sutter Home and Hearth recommends between 150,000 and 300,000 BTUs of gas coming into the fire pit, depending on the size of the burner. A plumber who works with gas lines can position the line and determine if you have adequate pressure.) One of Sutter’s popular portable gas fire pits is the simple Amber Elegance, a 16–inch diameter copper bowl with iron stand from American Gas Log (around $899).
Nisbett adds that many of his customers like to buy more permanent components and have them installed in their landscaping, or do it themselves. If you’re considering DIY option, kits for a 24-inch firepit start at about $180. Some come with remote-control switches. With added rock (usually lava rock, which can handle the heat, often covered with decorative glass or another material), fuel line, and any other materials, the total cost can be $500 or more. For something more modest—and sleekly modern—Lekker’s large or small tabletop fire pit in gray ceramic and stainless steel (German-made by Blomus) runs on gel fuel ($92.50 for 7.8-inch diameter, or $131.50 for 12.75-inch diameter). It’s perfect for an outdoor dinner party or a backyard camping trip. Or for writing your first nature essay.
Fire Pit Rules and Regulations
If your backyard chiminea or fire pit burns wood or charcoal, know the law.
Rules under the Puget Sound Clean Air Act (regulated by the regional Puget Sound Clean Air Agency):
l Fires must not exceed 3 feet in diameter or 2 feet in height.
l It is illegal to burn anything but charcoal, dried firewood or manufactured logs.
l Someone capable of extinguishing the fire must be present.
l If smoke from your fire bothers your neighbors, you must put it out.
l Air-quality burn bans exist for a reason: Fires are a particularly noxious source of air pollution. Keep tabs on local burn bans (check for a burn ban at pscleanair.org/airq/status.aspx). More information about backyard burns can be found at pscleanair.org/actions/outdoorfires/recreational.aspx.
Learn more about fire pits from these resources:
2728 62nd Ave. SE
Sutter Home and Hearth
5333 Ballard Ave. NW
West Seattle Nursery
5275 California Ave. SW
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