Leave it to a glowing, crackling fire to kick up the chatty and cozy factor at a backyard party.
Fire pits — which are portable or permanent troughs or bowls that contain the flames — are expected to be the most popular outdoor design element this year, according to a survey from the American Society of Landscape Architects.
"We've gathered around the campfire to tell stories since time immemorial," said Lisa Gimmy, a local landscape architect who has overseen dozens of fire pit projects. "There's something very deep in human nature that likes to watch flames."
Pop star Celine Dion's Florida home — currently on the market for $45.5 million — boasts a round fire pit on a platform jutting into a pool. Earlier this year, actor Johnny Galecki sold his Hollywood Hills house — which featured an angular fire pit on a wood deck — to fashion personalities Joe Zee and Rob Younkers.
Unlike fireplaces, which are usually pricier and also blocked off on multiple sides, fire pits encourage 360-degree gathering. The Home Depot sells matching chimeneas — free-standing fireplaces often shaped like flower vases — designed to pair with its fire pits.
"Fire pits are a great way to extend the use of your patio both into fall and evening," said Hila Roberts, the retailer's merchant for patio and outdoor fireplaces. "We're [entering] our outdoor fire pit season in September, which nationwide will last through December and in L.A. will last even longer."
Costs run the gamut. The Home Depot and Lowe's sell prefabricated options starting at less than $100. Custom pits usually range from $3,500 to $8,000 but can easily head higher, according to Gimmy.
Homeowners can build fire pits directly into their decks or lawns. Renters frequently opt for portable versions that are raised on wheels or stand on legs, like braziers.
Fire pits in Southern California are often aesthetic. Gimmy said her clients don't use their fire pits for food preparation — s'mores and franks tend to fare better over wood-fueled flames, which some local regulations restrict due to wildfire concerns, she said.
Instead, many fire pits in the area rely on dedicated pipes that pump in natural gas, which creates clean-burning flames with the flip of a switch. Other models use tanks of liquid propane or even cans of gel fuel, which don't produce ashes.
The fire pits can sit above ground, often with a wide ledge where guests can place drinks and snacks. Other designs are sunk into the patio or yard, surrounded by a thick border to shield against sparks.
Gimmy said the rims around her fire pits are always more than 18-inches wide, so that the flames are two feet or more away from a toddler's arm or a stray pet.
"I've never had it be an issue," she said of safety concerns.
Many pits are square or round, but any shape is possible. The Plodes Studio design firm, for example, makes fire pits in undulating geometric shapes that bring to mind Richard Serra sculptures.
Often, the pits are built with concrete blocks, then faced on the exterior with stone veneer, finished stucco, brick or even porcelain. Inside, the flames are distributed through a special medium, such as heat-absorbent lava rock, crushed glass in various colors, ceramic balls, artificial logs, silica sand and more.
But some fixtures are meant to be barer — just unfinished stainless steel or copper bowls and an upside-down gas ring that results in flames licking up across the metal.
Fire pits should be situated in open spaces, near a water source and away from dry grass, shrubs and tree branches, designers said. Many contractors add mesh covers or spread gravel as a base and across a surrounding radius to counteract stray embers.
Portable fire pits should be designed with heavier bases, said Roberts from Home Depot. Otherwise, she said, users can add sand to the bottom to help maintain stability and prevent overheating.
Many communities mandate that fire pits be set up at least 10 feet from any building, whereas some governments require official site inspections, according to Allstate Insurance Co. In certain areas vulnerable to wildfires, homeowners' insurance policies are contingent on fire pit disclosure.
Outdoor fire codes range from place to place — check with the local fire department for compliance.