Photo Contributed by Katie Vinson / The fire pit in the outdoor lounge at Hotel Indigo on West Sixth Street is open to guests and walk-in bar patrons.

Fire has fascinated humankind since Homo erectus learned to control this source of light and heat in the early Stone Age 2 million years ago.

These days, our means of control are considerably more advanced — we don't need an open flame to cook, stay warm, fend off predators or light our way. Yet fire still retains its ability to draw us in.

We sit mesmerized as its flames and flickers dance and move, change colors, shift shapes and shoot sparks skyward — a phenomenon some have described as "Caveman TV." We sense the inherent danger of fire and yet are calmed by our nearness to it.

If the effect seems primal, anthropologists would agree.

"The importance of fire in human evolutionary history is widely acknowledged, but the extent not fully explored," says Christopher Dana Lynn, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, in a paper published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

"For early humans, fire likely extended the day, provided heat, helped with hunting, warded off predators and insects, illuminated dark places and facilitated cooking," he says. "Campfires also may have provided social nexus and relaxation effects that could have enhanced prosocial behavior."

Even now, his research indicates, watching a fire has the capacity to lower blood pressure.

Think about it: Who doesn't feel more relaxed, even safer, around a campfire?

Modern consumers may no longer need fire for security, but their primal urge to socialize remains strong. Jack Fine, a sales advisor at Fine's Hearth & Patio in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, says the pandemic has fueled a surge in top-of-the-line outdoor living spaces, often centered around elaborate fireplaces or fire pits.

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Photo Contributed by Fine's Hearth & Patio / Jack Fine of Fine's Hearth & Patio says the coronavirus pandemic has fueled demand for outdoor living spaces. This custom build features plenty of seating around the fire pit.

"Ever since the coronavirus started, we've nearly tripled the amount of outdoor kitchens from year to year," he says.

Though these outdoor spaces are built for practical use, they are "mainly for entertainment purposes," Fine says. "It's somewhere other than the living room to be around other people. It opens up the outdoors for everybody to be more social."

Michael Henry knows that instinct well. Family and friends are just naturally drawn to the backyard fire pit at his home in Ringgold, Georgia, he says. He uses a hidden propane gas tank for easy ignition, then lets chunks of hardwood flicker and smolder like the rise and fall of conversation around the fire.

"We sit out there all the time," he says. "The fire pit is the focal point of the whole back patio. We've got two chairs and a love seat where four people can sit around it, but you could drag three times as many more chairs around it easy."

Henry recently added a heavy-duty custom fire pit at the Ringgold event venue he owns, The Barn on Beaumont, after a less-expensive one rusted out and was discarded.

"Folks kept asking for one," he says. "When you have nights in the 50s and 60s in the fall and spring, people want to be outside around one."

Likewise, a tabletop fire feature at Soddy-Daisy wedding venue Cedar Hills Farm is a favorite among guests. Heat is a given benefit when the weather is even remotely chilly, but at least one enterprising bride set up a s'mores table with instructions to use the propane flame to roast the marshmallows.

"I thought it was a super-creative idea," says Lindey Goodrich, who with husband Nathaniel bought the property in August.

Where to find fire pits around town

Many bars and restaurants have heated patios. Here are some that feature fire pits or fireplaces.

— Be Caffeinated, 14 W. Kent St.

— Cafe on the Corner, 826 Scenic Highway

— Flying Squirrel, 55 Johnson St.

— Hotel Indigo, 300 W. Sixth St.

— Lakeshore Grille, 5600 Lake Resort Terrace

— Moxy, 1220 King St.

— Southside Social, 1818 Chestnut St.

— State of Confusion, 301 E. Main St.

— Stir, 1444 Market St.

— Westin, 801 Pine St.

"When we give our tours, we show guests the courtyard space outside the barn doors if they want extra mingling room, and they can see the little fireplace out there if they want to use it," she says.

Mandi Holt, assistant manager at the Kent Street location of Be Caffeinated in Chattanooga, says she's noticed a similar attraction among customers who congregate on the North Shore coffee shop's double patio. Both sections are enclosed in plastic for heating and cooling, but one also has a small, gas-powered fire pit in a shin-height, concrete built-in.

"When the fire is on, it's kind of nice to sit out there in that area," she says.

Some of the newer hotels dotting Chattanooga's skyline have fire pits for guests and other visitors to enjoy, including Hotel Indigo on West Sixth Street, Moxy on King Street and The Westin on Pine Street.

"If you want to come have a drink at the bar, you can access those," says sales director Katie Vinson of the two fire pits in the outdoor lounge at Hotel Indigo. "That's always a nice spot to gather when the weather changes."

Chris Campbell, owner of Time for Tai Ji and an expert on health and wellness exercise therapies, says the fire pit on the deck of his Stuart Heights home is his go-to destination for watching the stars or for relaxing, meditating or exercising in its warmth.

"I teach tai ji, and the deck is one of my favorite places to do my practice," he says.