Thomas J. Story
Spending an evening by a crackling fire under a starry sky is one of the pleasures of summer in the West, especially when warm days dissolve into chilly nights. But you don't have to travel hundreds of miles to a favorite camping spot to huddle around a flickering fire ― you can bring a firepit into your own backyard.
There are lots of choices, from built-in firepits edged with stone and fueled by gas to simple, portable copper or steel types just big enough for a couple of logs. Here's what to look for.
An aboveground firepit, surrounded by low (18-24-in.-tall) walls made of stone, rock, concrete, or other nonflammable building material, is certainly the most expensive option. But it is a permanent garden element, handsome and useful whether or not there is a fire going. When topped by a wide ledge, such walls provide seating ― perfect perches for roasting marshmallows. The surrounding walls also offer an extra element of safety for wood-fueled fires, which can send up sparks. Large metal or concrete containers can also be converted into permanent firepits fueled by logs or gas.
Inground firepits capture the magic of wilderness campfires. They can be as casual as depressions in the soil edged with rocks, or they can be lined with concrete for a more finished look.
Portable firepits are popular for their ease of use and flexibility. You can enjoy them at home or take them on a picnic or to the beach, where permitted. Firepits sold in home-and-garden mail-order catalogs are generally made of copper; they range from 27 to 40 inches wide and typically cost $120 to $300. Steel and other heat-resistant containers are also available. Portable firepits are fueled by wood or compressed logs.
Having an open flame in your backyard calls for safety and courtesy: Situate the firepit away from flammables such as dry grasses and where smoke won't bother neighbors. Observe fire ordinances and don't use your firepit on no-burn days or when it's smoggy or windy. Use a spark screen, especially under dry conditions. Never leave a fire unattended and keep a fire extinguisher or a garden hose with a sprayer nearby.
Compressed logs (such as Java-Log, pictured above left) or wood logs with a low resin content (such as oak) are the safest choice ― don't burn scrap lumber or trash. In a portable firepit, burn only one or two logs at a time (place them in the bottom, not on top of a raised grate, unless the manufacturer states differently). Built-in firepits generally can hold more logs, but don't overfill.
Use clean fuels
One common complaint about firepits in suburbia is the air pollution caused by the smoke that burning wood sends aloft. Gas firepits are cleaner-burning. But where gas isn't practical, there's a new alternative: compressed logs made from recycled coffee grounds (mostly leftovers from manufacturing instant coffee), molasses, and a bit of wax. Called Java-Logs, they produce 88 percent less carbon monoxide and 50 percent less soot than wood. Compared to sawdust logs, they burn cleaner, emit a taller, more natural flame throughout their burn cycle (up to three hours), and have a mildly sweet scent instead of a chemical smell. Java-Logs are available from www.wholelattelove.com or at most California Whole Foods Markets.