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Drawn to the backyard flame

Across Southern California, family and friends are lingering by the warm glow of fire pits.

June 16, 2005|Christy Hobart | Special to The Times

It's a vivid memory of summertime camp-outs -- that circle of silhouettes huddled around a crackling fire late at night, faces illuminated by flames and occasionally obscured by smoke. Unbelievable tales were told around this ring, secrets were whispered, solemn pacts were made. Stars shot across the sky and owls screeched. Friendships formed.

You can't go back, of course, but the intimacy of a shared outdoor fire doesn't have to be relegated to childhood memories. Some Southern Californians are bringing the camp-out home, incorporating modern-day fire pits into residential landscape designs. Family cookouts at the beach (back when they were legal) inspired Sandra Hamilton to install a fire pit in her Westlake Village garden.

"I never forgot the combined scent of sea spray and smoldering driftwood and hickory chips, or the intimacy and quietude that seemed to settle over everyone gathered," Hamilton says.

Though Hamilton, husband Jerry Gentile and their two children don't live on the beach, a secluded spot on their property with a lake view provided a magical setting for their round, 5-foot-wide, stucco-and-flagstone pit. Rather than build permanent seating around the fire, the family uses chairs, which offer more flexibility.

The fire pit has become a place where everyone gathers almost every night of the summer. Hamilton and her 8-year-old daughter, Julie, can snuggle. Son Leland, 14, and his friends hang out there instead of playing video games inside.

"The impulse to explode seed pods or chuck in a smoke bomb when they think nobody is watching is apparently overwhelming," Hamilton says.

Family members roast marshmallows and share highlights of their day, and guests often stay much later than intended. The fire pit, she observes, "seems to inspire more thoughtful conversation."

Grandstanding, as is sometimes done from the head of a table, is rarely done by people seated in a circle -- and that's the point.

"It is really democratic in its conception," wrote landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860-1951) in his book "The Clearing." "Here one is no more than the other."

Jensen, who designed many gardens in the Midwest with circular gathering areas, was inspired by the Native American council rings still used today for spiritual gatherings and powwows.

The modern residential interpretation of the council ring often is centered on fire or a water element, such as a fountain, and constructed for casual get-togethers. The rings are often gas-fueled, making gatherings spontaneous and day-after cleanup minimal. Though Hamilton and Gentile planned on burning only wood in their pit, they installed a gas line so they had the option of an easily regulated flame.

"This proved to be a good decision," Hamilton says. It wasn't long before they replaced the wood with stones and resorted to a gas fire, eliminating drifting embers and smoke. "The wood smells wonderful and has a satisfying crackle, but it's messy," she says. "It needs to be constantly restocked, and ultimately, nobody wanted to muck out the fire pit after every use."

Cleanup can be an issue with some of the portable outdoor fireplaces widely available in stores and online. They come in various forms -- terra-cotta chimeneas, copper bowls, stainless steel boxes -- and usually are fueled by wood or charcoal. Though they can be quite attractive, most have to be cleaned regularly. Propane-fueled models, often sold in kits, are less messy -- but often less attractive.

"It feels very primitive to gather around a fire," says actress Jennifer Grey, who asked Los Angeles-based garden designer Rob Steiner to incorporate a fire pit into the Santa Monica Canyon garden she shares with her husband, Clark Gregg, and daughter, Stella.

"Jennifer wanted a place where she and her family and friends could eat casually or throw their feet up around a fire," Steiner says. His solution was a "fire table," a 7 1/2 -foot-square concrete coffee table with a gas-fueled fire pit in the middle.

He sited the table by the secluded home's front door, just outside the living room, transforming a nondescript area into a place the family uses every day.

"The indoor and outdoor living spaces merge," Steiner says, sliding open the pocket doors to create a 12-foot-wide opening between the polished interior concrete floors and the garden's concrete pavers and gravel.

"We use it as part of our living room," Grey says. "We have early family dinners out there as the sun's going down and watch the transformation of day into night." When she and Gregg entertain, they make sure they have a pile of blankets at the ready for friends who invariably stay late.

Some of the most special times at the fire table, however, take place first thing in the morning.

"Stella gets up early," Grey says of her 3 1/2 -year-old, "and we sit out by the fire in our robes with our tea while she plays. A fireplace in the 6:30 light is dreamy."

A gurgling fountain, chirping birds and the perfume of a lavender hedge add to the moment.

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