Greet the Season With Fire Pits

Create a destination fire pit and enjoy the flickering flames as cool nights set it.


Photo by Ruth P. Peterkin

The Bay Area experienced a real “summer” in the proper seasonal sequence this year. Even so, the regularly scheduled Indian summer with warm days will soon lead to crisp, clear evenings with spectacular sunsets. And who doesn’t want to linger a little longer outdoors without donning a down coat? Time for some fire.

“There’s two kinds of fire features,” said landscape architect Sue Oda of El Cerrito.

 “Fire pits and fireplaces. Fireplaces are usually closer to the house, if not part of the main house, near an outdoor kitchen, or the focus of an outdoor living room,” she added. “A fire pit is usually further away from the house—an intimate, outdoor ‘room’ for small groups to gather when it gets dark.

“When I design, I think of a fire pit as a destination.”

Almost any abode with a suitable outdoor space can accommodate a fire pit. From small, semi-portable wood-burning chimineas for a patio to campfire-size pits large enough to accommodate a gathering of your tribe, if you build a fire pit, they will come.

Whether you decide to go fully custom, off-the-shelf, or low-budget DIY (digging a hole and stacking stones works), you’re constrained only by budget and space.

When thinking about designing for a fire pit, Oda recommended considering its permanence. Will the smoke blow toward your house or your neighbor’s? Do you want something you can move around as needed, or are you investing in a more permanent fixture/upgrade to your home’s landscape? Regardless, there are solutions for both.

Given outdoor wood-burning is generally frowned upon these days, gas-fired pits are the most common and eco-friendly alternative. With gas, you won’t get the crackle of fire, but you also won’t get the wood smoke smell on your clothes or splinters in your fingers.

If you plan on adding a fire pit to your home’s landscape, call in an experienced designer and contractor who can navigate the necessary permitting. In most locales, you’ll need at least a 10-foot space between the fire pit and your neighbor’s yard in addition to your own structures and fences. Check with your homeowners’ association or local fire ordinances regarding regulations on permanent fire fixtures.

Portable fire pits offer the most versatility; a surprising range of styles, materials (stone, cast iron, and glass); and prices, including more refined do-it-yourself options. Some, if not most, won’t require a permit; however, it can never hurt to call your local officials to ensure your fire pit is installed in a safe location.

Gas fire tables, a variation on the fire pit, put you even closer to the mesmerizing flicker of flame plus surface area for dining and entertaining. Keep in mind both need a flat, level surface preferably made of stone, brick, concrete, or ceramic tile. Looking for drama? Add concrete or glass fire “bowls” to the landscape or poolside for a fire-lit midnight dip.

Lastly, in this fire-prone region, take safety precautions when enjoying your new fire feature. Check the wind direction before lighting, and ensure the fire is completely extinguished, the ashes are properly disposed, and the gas is completely turned off when you turn in for the evening. Don’t wear flammable or loose fitting clothing near fire features, and be sure to keep the kids and pets away from the flames, too.


Resource: Sue Oda Landscape Architect, 510-684-8789,


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