Sacramento Bee - 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, Calif., 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.
A recent survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects reflects that demand. Among outdoor design features expected to be most popular this year, 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.
"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," Homsy said.
Like the backyard grill, fire pits have gone upscale, made to match any patio furniture with such features as automatic ignition and a propane tank hidden in a pullout 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."
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.
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. "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."
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."
Fire features raged through the last 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."
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."
(Contact Debbie Arrington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @debarrington. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)