Fall by the Fire

 In Coastal Life, Garden & Landscaping, Home Decor & Remodeling

Between ocean and sound, outdoor fireplaces and fire pits are synonymous with seasonal oyster roasts, get-togethers with family and friends, and nights where the only sounds are nearby waves and the occasional crackle of the fire. And although they appeal year-round, fall may be the best time to explore adding the feature to your family home or vacation rental.

“We cook steak and oysters on it,” says Kitty Hawk resident Britney Gravatt of her family’s wood-burning fire pit. “We have a six-year-old now, so she really enjoys the s’mores part of it. And it’s a good way to get to know your neighbors because they see what’s going on and they come over and join in.”

Britney and her husband, Michael Gravatt, especially love to use their waterfront fire pit in the off-season. Michael designed and built the fire pit himself – for backyard gatherings, cooking, and to fish from the deck that he constructed around it.

For vacation rental homes, outdoor fireplaces can be an attractive feature for potential renters, but homeowners benefit too with the resulting outdoor gatherings that limit wear and tear on the home’s interior. “It’s a growing trend,” says Carolina Designs Realty Property Manager Elaine Breiholz, who recommends fireplaces and fire pits to homeowners looking to elevate an outdoor space. “It’s fun during the summer, but it also enhances the cooler shoulder seasons.”


There’s something nostalgic about gathering around a fire as the leaves turn – even on the Outer Banks where autumn can sometimes feel like a quiet extension of summer.


Fire pit design and functionality has come a long way in recent years, and with the right designer, you can install something as simple or elaborate as your time and budget allow.

On the Outer Banks, Kitty Hawk-based landscaping company Sandscapes has been installing fire features from Corolla to Avon, as well as in Manteo and on the Currituck mainland, since 2000. From inception to completion, husband-and-wife owners Sarah Brown and Orlando Altamirano have conceived everything you can think of, from traditional round stone fire pits to elaborately shaped installations with glass accents.

“I do all of the design, and he makes it come to life,” says Sarah Brown, who loves taking a project from paper to completion. “We rarely do the same thing twice. I can install prefab things, but generally we design and build everything from scratch.”

Photo courtesy Sandscapes, Inc.

In general, outdoor fireplaces and fire pits can range from free-standing chimeneas to structures that resemble an indoor fireplace to the more popular built-in fire pit. Stone provides durability and can be arranged in any way you like, while other materials like ceramic and copper yield visually stunning results but may not hold up the best in inclement weather.

“The most popular is your round, rustic, ledgestone-style fire pit,” Brown says of trends on the Outer Banks. “[But] we’ve done a lot more modern ones too. We’ve done rectangular, glass, polished concrete, polished travertine – we can do anything. It really depends on the style of the house and the style of the person.”

Brown tends to recommend natural stone, cinderblock, and concrete for our coastal environment – and occasionally faux stone. “Some of the lighter prefab materials that are metal are just not going to make it,” she says, noting the degradation that takes place over time.

In terms of fuel, there’s something to be said about the accomplishment of starting a wood-burning fire. Not to mention, the familiar scents of wood and smoke and the ability to experiment with different types of wood, particularly when cooking. But for vacation rental homeowners, the simplest option is usually propane.

“Most of them are gas that we have,” says Breiholz of the properties managed by Carolina Designs. “It makes it easier on the vacationer not having to worry about wood. You can’t always buy it at the store here.”

Photo courtesy Sandscapes, Inc.

Additionally, propane fireplaces and fire pits have auto-shutoff features so there is no responsibility to extinguish the fire, and they don’t require as much cleanup. At Sandscapes, Brown will tell you that propane fire pits are also popular in small family-owned homes and are very economical. A tank can be hidden in a bench behind the fire and, according to Brown, is just as safe as if it were a gas grill.

There’s also the option to run a natural gas line to a fireplace or fire pit, which some homeowners enjoy because they will never run out of fuel.

Among the most memorable fire pits she has designed, Brown recalls a home that became a favorite in the Parade of Homes for its outdoor spaces. “It was oceanfront with travertine,” she says. “They already had a travertine pool deck, so we designed a matching fire pit with travertine and white-polish concrete with turquoise glass in it.”

Originally, one of the owners of the home had wanted the fire pit and the other didn’t, but after installation, the latter was quickly convinced and ended up using it all the time.

Another set of clients in Martin’s Point wanted to spend more time in the backyard but decided to skip the pool. They asked for a design that highlighted both an outdoor kitchen and a fire pit, so Brown designed matching products for them, too.

“It’s a great tool to get everybody outside and enjoying being out there with family,” says Brown. “We definitely have clients who want to cook on them. But mostly I think people are just thinking that they’re going to go out and have a glass of wine and chat with their friends at the end of the day. It’s very social.”

When it comes to planning the location of your new outdoor gathering area, there are almost no hard guidelines – particularly if your fire pit is propane because it is treated similarly to a gas grill. Natural gas lines, though, do require a permit and safety testing. It is also important to keep in mind that pan inserts, commonly made of affordable stainless steel, will need to be replaced every two to three years (and sometimes more often if you are close to the ocean).

For those thinking of installing a fireplace or fire pit, Brown says, “Gather your ideas. If you have a picture or ideas that you like, anything can be custom-made.”

(Please always be sure to check with individual towns regarding specific regulations on outdoor fires and fire pits.)  

Photo Shutterstock

Beach Bonfire Regulations

Open fires are not permitted on the beaches of Corolla, Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, or Kill Devil Hills. But head south, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy a bonfire on the edge of the Atlantic.

Nags Head

Bonfires are allowed on Nags Head beaches with a permit issued by Nags Head Fire and Rescue. Stop by Station 16 at Milepost 14.5 or Station 21 at Milepost 18 between 5 and 9 pm daily to obtain a permit for $10. Permits are also available online at www.nagsheadnc.gov.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

From May 1 to November 15, bonfires are allowed at Coquina Beach, on the beaches of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras, and in the Ocracoke day use area with a free permit issued by an ORV Permit Office. From November 16 to April 30, bonfires are allowed throughout Cape Hatteras National Seashore with a permit. Permits are also available online at www.nps.gov/caha.

Fires must be built below the high tide line, must be more than 50 feet from any vegetation and more than 100 meters from any turtle nest, can be no greater than three feet in diameter, cannot be left unattended, and must be completely extinguished after use. ♦

Feature image via homeinnovators.com

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