The age-old quest for fire is getting a makeover. No longer relegated to a humble ring of charred rocks, outdoor flames are now a hot landscape accessory. And those who yearn to burn are cozying up to stylish chimineas, decorative fire pits and even free-standing fireplaces that would look right at home in a Mc- Mansion great room. "It's part of the trend to outdoor living," said Jamie Brown, owner of Earthscape, a Minnetrista contractor that specializes in stone masonry and landscape design. "People are creating spaces on their property where they can do things outside. The fireplace is the focal point." Fire has a starring role in an extensive patio/landscape upgrade that Earthscape recently completed for Dave and Carla Sipprell in Orono. Their project included three fire pits, a waterfall and a Chilton stone hearth with built-in wood storage and an ornate wrought-iron gate that the couple bought at a North Shore lodge gift shop.

The Sipprells use their outdoor fireplace frequently -- "every time we have company," Dave said, and also as a family with their two young sons.

"We can enjoy the nice wood-burning smell and hear the fire crackling," he said. "The waterfall adds a soothing sound. It feels like we're out of town when we're in our own back yard; it's like a little resort."

Hot trend

Fire pits and outdoor fireplaces top the list of landscape trends for 2007, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects. And although the trend has been slower to ignite locally than in more temperate climates, it's now going strong, according to Brown. "Just like everything else, it's a trend that finally worked its way to the Midwest," he said. "Five or six years ago, you couldn't give 'em [outdoor fireplaces] away. Now every other inquiry is about a fireplace or pizza oven."

Fire is a way to extend Minnesota's short patio season, said Jeff Gaffney, a landscape designer for M/A/Peterson in Edina.

"People in Minnesota love the outdoors, love the changes in seasons and want to keep themselves outside as long as they can," he said.

About 80 percent of Gaffney's clients now have "some element of fire" on their wish list when starting a landscape project, he estimated.

Renee and Rick May of Edina quickly warmed to the idea of back-yard burning after Gaffney suggested it as part of a remodeling project two years ago.

"He said, 'This would be a great, cozy spot for a fire pit,'" Renee recalled. The Mays agreed, eventually choosing a patio design with a free-standing copper fire pit as its centerpiece.

"It's great for our family; it invites a lot of conversation," she said. "We light candles around it, put pillows on chairs. It's kind of a magnet. You're just attracted out there. It's a very calming and relaxing place to be."

Some homeowners are even adding built-in stone "furniture" to their outdoor hearth rooms. Mike and Michele McMahon recently hired JLM Design Build of Edina to craft a stone fireplace and a pair of matching stone tables in their Medina back yard, "so I can bring food out there," Michele said. "We can grab a glass of wine, look at the stars and just enjoy the serenity."

Patrick ODell can accommodate up to 30 people on his small Minneapolis patio, thanks to the seating walls that surround his stone fireplace, which includes a decorative copper hood. ODell wanted to create an outdoor room that connected his cottage-style house and adjacent carriage house, similar to courtyards that he'd seen in Europe. "It's a small space with character and a lot of intimacy," he said. "I definitely use the outdoors more now. It's like an extension of the house."

ODell chose a gas fireplace because of its proximity to the house, but most homeowners opt for old-fashioned wood-burning units, Gaffney said. "Outside, they want that natural element."

A wood fire has the added benefit of warming up a crisp Minnesota night. And some homeowners even install blowers to draw the fire's heat into a seating area, Brown said. "There are also enclosures you can sit in, like a fire room."

Even those measures usually aren't enough to make outdoor hearth rooms comfortable in the dead of winter.

"I don't see a ton of people huddled outside around the fire in 20-degree weather," Brown said. "But in fall, when football games are on, that's when it's perfect."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784