Although scientists aren’t certain exactly when humans learned to use fire, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it occurred many millennia ago and, as simple as it sounds, that single act has had an ongoing effect on human development that is truly profound.
Fire has been credited with a broad range of success stories, including our ability to live in cold climates and all manner of advanced tool-making skills. But the most powerful human fallout from fire is arguably more social. Since small, controlled fires were used to cook and preserve food, and since they required relatively constant tending, they became a focal point for human interaction. Some anthropologists suggest that fire was key to social evolution and may have been pivotal to the development of spoken language. No wonder we still gather around the campfire to visit with family and friends, sing, contemplate and even, on occasion, cook.
Today, outdoor fires are often associated with, and in some cases relegated to, the recreational activity called camping, and, most of the time, they are built in some type of container or structure called a firepit. In many cases, the pit is actually an above-ground container built of concrete and/or steel, but the firepit can be as simple as a shallow depression in the ground. Creating a safe place to build an outdoor fire at home is no mystery, but relatively few folks thought to do so until fairly recently. This fact might be due in part to open-fire ordinances in various locations, or the lack of a suitable place to dig a traditional firepit. In any case, fire fanatics now have a number of choices for fanning the flame – all of them are safe and most are legal everywhere.
Dig your own
Creating your own old-fashioned in-the-ground firepit isn’t that complicated. The most important piece to the burning question is location. Let common sense (or local ordinance) be your guide, but the firepit ought to be at least 50 feet from the nearest building (farther is better) or other concentrated source of readily combustible material. The state of New Hampshire, which issues permits for all open fires, requires that you install your pit (up to 48 inches in diameter) within an eight-foot diameter area that has been cleared of all combustibles.
Although there is much discussion on how deep the firepit should be, I have had good luck with an 8- to 12-inch depth, and since a ready supply of stone is included in the soil on our farm, I use it to line the pit’s sides. If your ground is porous you won’t need to worry about drainage. If clay is your medium, then digging a 12-inch-deep sump in the pit’s center and filling it with gravel will help keep the fire bed dry. Wherever the soil is particularly high in organic matter, especially large tree roots, it’s prudent to line your firepit with several inches of clay, sand or fine gravel to minimize the chance of igniting those roots.
If you would rather skip the digging altogether, then build a surface-level pit on a well-cleared piece of ground using dry stacked stone, recycled truck-tire rims or other materials to form its boundaries. In some municipalities, it is also necessary to remove the topsoil from the area beneath and for several feet around the firepit since organic material by its very nature contains carbon, which is a major component of many fuels. In locations where open fires are expressly prohibited, adding a cooking grate and/or spark screen to your firepit might be all that’s needed to comply. Many such accessories are available for semi-permanent firepits, but in many cases they are standard equipment on portable models that, according to Jim Jarvis, president of firepit manufacturer and distributor Dancing Fire Inc., can be used in more than 90 percent of municipalities around the country.
The best free-standing firepits are fabricated with heavy-gauge steel plate, tubing and bar stock, although a few good cast steel models are also available. Dancing Fire’s (www.DancingFire.biz; 817-613-0029) lineup of Texas-made Tank brand firepits are among the best of the best and are designed for people who want to safely enjoy a real fire and burn full-sized logs virtually anywhere. Currently two basic models are available, the 36-inch diameter Sherman and the 48-inch diameter Abrams. Both Tanks come standard with a dome-shaped stainless steel safety screen that is neatly hinged to fold out of the way for cooking or tending the fire. Optional equipment includes large and small cooking grills and a turkey fryer – all fit into sleeves built into the Tank’s three legs and swing out of the way when not needed. These industrial strength firepits are heavy, stable, safe and built to last a lifetime. Price: about $800 for the Sherman and $900 for the Abrams.
If you burn for a more stylish and portable firepit, SoJoe Inc. (www.SoJoe.com; 888-316-1404) has you covered with several quality steel models. The 24-inch diameter SoJoe™ weighs in at less than 70 pounds, which means that you can move it around the farm or carry it to remote locations with minimal fuss. These hand-crafted coal containers feature a maintenance-free finish and an integral safety ring that keeps your feet out of the fire and doubles as a carry handle. SoJoe firepits come standard with one of four cutout patterns (Star and Moon, Wildlife, Kokopelli, Willow Crane), spark screen and poker; options include a cooking grill, weather cover and Grizzly brand rotisserie. Price about $300.
Open fire cooking
The battery-powered Grizzly Spit makes a fine (and portable) companion to virtually any firepit (www.SpitJack.com; 800-755-5509). This quality rotisserie has the capacity of about 25 pounds and comes with two upright poles that suspend the three-foot stainless steel spit and reduction gear motor. The Grizzly comes standard with two spit forks to clamp roasts and poultry in place – an optional basket for fish, vegetables and other small items is available. Setting up the Grizzly is easy: simply drive the support poles into the ground on either side of the fire, secure the food to the spit and slide it into place. Flip the motor’s switch, sit back and enjoy the total sensory experience. Price: about $50.
If you just want to char some burgers or roast a few hotdogs, you can find grill grates, pot cranes, skewers, cast-iron cookware, corn poppers, pie irons and all manner of fire-cooking utensil at one of several online vendors devoted to such endeavors. For example, SpitJack’s Cast Iron Tuscan Grill (about $40) makes any open fire into a cook fire, while Lehman Hardware’s (www.Lehmans.com; 877-438-5346) Campfire Popcorn Popper (about $35) can provide a steady supply of hot smoked popcorn in 2.5-quart batches.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.