Should sky lanterns be banned?

Chinese lanterns, also called sky lanterns, are small balloons made of paper that fly because of heated air from a small fire underneath. These devices are a prime source of “UFO” sightings since they move with the winds aloft and can accelerate unexpectedly but also remain seemingly stationary for a bit, confusing the witness. They are often released in celebrations and often in groups. Because of the open flame, when they land they have a potential to catch things on fire. This has caused concern from many communities in the US and UK that have banned release of sky lanterns.

Sky lanterns spark bans in more communities

Allen Park (Michigan) began weighing an ordinance in late spring after several city residents complained on city social media pages about the flame-powered, air-traveling lanterns, also known as Chinese lanterns, landing on their properties.

While the Allen Park Fire Department has yet to receive a call to put out a fire started by a sky lantern, officials fear it’s only a matter of time.

“It’s irresponsible to let an incendiary device go up when you don’t have control over where it lands,” Allen Park Fire Marshal Edward Cann said.

Banned in the state of Illinois, Michigan still allows them and they are popular sellers. Some people dispute they are a problem and others say it’s just a matter of time before a lit lantern starts a structure fire or ignites vegetation during a dry spell. In any case, those using fireworks or other lit objects need to be especially careful on windy days or during a time of high wildfire risk.

Floating orange balls of light, preparing for take off.

Floating orange balls of light, preparing for take off.

Addition: In 2014, a fire was reported to cause minor damage, the result of one of these objects landing on a roof in Lancaster, PA. (Tip: AmbrosiaX)

  15 comments for “Should sky lanterns be banned?

  1. Jeff B.
    August 10, 2015 at 11:42 AM

    Don’t the lanterns basically stay aloft until the candles burn themselves out? Just wondering. . .

  2. One Eyed Jack
    August 10, 2015 at 11:44 AM

    So long as the candle is burning, won’t the lantern stay aloft? How is it a fire threat if the fire is out when it lands?

  3. Blargh
    August 10, 2015 at 12:30 PM

    They have plenty of failure modes – there’s good old material failure, there’s the candle flame going below the point of being able to sustain lift but still above the point where it’s able to start fires, and there’s plain old wind. The list goes on. The facts are clear: sky lanterns can and do cause fires. They’re basically low-powered Fu-Go.

  4. Peebs
    August 10, 2015 at 12:31 PM

    Another problem with them not mentioned in the article is the frames.

    They are usually made from wire and, if a lantern lands in a field, can be ingested by cattle.

    I believe this has happened a few times this side of the Pond and was the main reason for bans.

  5. Haldurson
    August 10, 2015 at 12:36 PM

    Normally, I’d think you’d be right. But during a drought, if a smoldering lantern fell into some dried brush, I could see a fire starting from that. Then again, under the right conditions (dry, hot weather, dead brush), it takes very little to start a fire.

  6. CLamb
    August 10, 2015 at 1:05 PM

    My home town has had an ordinance banning “fire balloons” on the books since the 19th century. I suspect many other municipalities in New Jersey do also.

  7. Christine Rose
    August 10, 2015 at 2:18 PM

    I believe the usual way they start a fire is by a failure of the skin, which cause the hot air balloon to lose integrity, so they fall while still lit. If the skin or frame ignites, the balloon loses integrity. Usually they go out on the way down.

  8. Peebs
    August 10, 2015 at 3:03 PM

    Christine, you’ve just summed up my, er, social life in one long metaphor!

  9. Richard
    August 10, 2015 at 3:22 PM

    They’re popular in Michigan (where there is a large population of people from Asia, and people of European descent interested in Asian culture & religions – and I live in Detroit). You would think they would stay aloft while the flame source (typically a small candle) is burning, but in strong winds they can be blown down into trees, onto wires, or onto roofs – with the candle still burning within its paper or ceramic shell. Also in wind the paper balloon can catch fire from the candle and then fall to earth while still burning. In spite of being The Great Lakes State and all the rain we had this spring, we are also having an unseasonably dry summer with fire threats (forests & logging, with tourism & hunting & fish, are still prominent industries in Michigan) and the state Department of Natural Resources is asking for campers to refrain from camp fires, and due to house fires in suburban neighborhoods of Detroit, there is a movement to ban these.

  10. August 10, 2015 at 4:21 PM

    Maybe just require that the designs comply with some kind of safety…thing…clearly, I am not familiar with the mechanics of these lanterns, but can’t they be redesigned? I mean, why aren’t fireworks banned in all states (I know they are in some)? They cause fires and injuries too.

    I don’t think banning them is the answer. They are culturally important to some groups of Americans. Can’t we reach some kind of compromise?

  11. August 10, 2015 at 6:42 PM

    Yikes! Since becoming a volunteer firefighter in SW New Mexico, any unattended fire scares me. Even a low failure rate can cause significant consequences. (I don’t like picking up deflated helium balloons when I walk in the forest, either. Am I becoming a grumpy old woman?) This year, tho, I think our friends in the NW may be more worried than I am.

  12. Sporkfighter
    August 10, 2015 at 10:39 PM

    You mean dry, hot weather like the entire southwest experiences every summer, and recently, year round?

  13. Sporkfighter
    August 10, 2015 at 10:44 PM

    Compromise? This is my home town. I live a ten minute walk from where this picture was taken.

    What kind of compromise did you have in mind?

  14. Mark Richards
    August 11, 2015 at 1:07 PM

    I’d like to +1 this for visibility.

    Dropping random chunks of scrap on the landscape is no more consequence-free than sending flaming candles aloft into air currents.

  15. Spencer
    October 2, 2015 at 11:42 PM

    That is the idea. But not always in practice…

    My buddy bought a pack of them. It was fun lighting several of them and sending them off… until you watch one go off in the distance and then suddenly come streaking down to the ground half a mile away when the candle lights the lantern on fire.

    The candle is very difficult to put out and all it takes is some erratic wind patterns to light the lantern paper cloth on fire.

    We freaked out but very fortunately we did not hear reports of any fires that night or the next morning. I am positive it came crashing down in a neighbor’s land but not sure exactly where. After that scare I will never light another one again unless it is right after a nice rain to reduce risk of fire. It is really scary (i.e. did I just burn down someone’s home!?) when they come down or do not go where you think they will!

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