National Park Service discourages the use of fire balloons

Sky lantern release in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Sky lantern release in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo by Takeaway.

Chinese lanterns, sky lanterns, or fire balloons are banned in at least 12 states and 6 countries. These devices use burning material such as rubbing alcohol or a candle to heat the air in a bag made of tissue paper or very thin plastic. The heat makes the device lighter than air causing it to rise into the sky, staying aloft for 10 minutes to 2 hours. They can be very pretty to watch especially when they are released dozens or hundreds at a time such as at a wedding or some other celebration. The problem is they sometimes start fires in structures and wildland areas, and they leave litter where they eventually land.

The National Park Service, in one of their weekly structure fire prevention messages last year clarified the agency’s policy on the incendiary devices:

We strongly discourage using sky lanterns because of the fire hazard.

Then they listed some helpful hints to consider if you still insist on using them in a National Park, such as, don’t use them indoors, and

Do not use sky lanterns in areas with burnable vegetation. Misuse in this manner has resulted in many wildland fires.

We checked with the NPS’ Kathy Komatz, the National Structural Fire Training Specialist who wrote the article about the use of sky lanterns. She told us that she was not able to find a Park Service-wide policy on the use of the devices. However, it is possible that individual park units could ban them and few people would know about it.

Mike Ferris a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, explained his agency’s view:

There are no specific CFR’s [Code of Federal Regulations] that address Sky Lanterns. They would not meet the definition of a firework or other pyrotechnic device. However, they are a “fire” and several CFR’s prohibit any unpermitted or uncontrolled use of fire. It would loosely fall under the campfire definition as well. The most applicable prohibition would be 261.5(d) Leaving a fire without completely extinguishing it. Therefore, they would not be legal to use in the National Forests unless they were specifically permitted.

For the Bureau of Land Management’s take on sky lanterns, we heard from Kenneth Frederick:

I asked Jon Skinner about this (he is the BLM’s national fire mitigation and education specialist at NIFC). Jon wrote that, as far as he knows, Montana is the only state in which the BLM has banned sky lanterns on agency-managed lands. However, it is important to note that federal regulations already prohibit causing wildfires on public lands. The BLM expects land users to be careful and wise. That applies to any activity that could ignite a wildfire.

Sky lanterns have not been a serious problem (yet) for the BLM. But if their use becomes a more and more common source of wildfire ignition on BLM lands, I think the public could expect them to be banned outright on BLM lands–or at least strongly regulated.

Earlier this month sky lanterns or fire balloons were suspected of causing 300 vegetation fires in the Sverdlovsk oblast in Russia.

Entire countries have banned the use of sky lanterns, including Austria, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Spain, Germany and parts of Canada. In the United State they are illegal in California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

A company called Rise Lantern Festival is planning fire balloon events around the world, hoping to make money by selling tickets to the participants. They have one planned on October 18, 2014 about 20 miles south of Las Vegas, Nevada, and another for Bali, Indonesia on November 15, 2014. Their web site does not specify how the trash will be collected, or how they plan to deal with fires that may result.

It seems counter-intuitive that many national parks and forests ban open campfires, at least in certain areas or times of the year, but it’s perfectly fine in some locations to set a fire in a flimsy, sometimes home-made hot air balloon and let the wind carry it to an unknown destination, while recognizing that the use of the devices has “resulted in many wildland fires”.

At least two companies have used images of fire balloons in their television commercials, which could raise the popularity of the dangerous devices. Those irresponsible companies are Mercedes automobiles, and AndroGel, which is testosterone marketed by AbbVie.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Wikipedia:

A sky lantern may land when the flame is still alight, making it a fire hazard. In typical designs, as long as the lantern stays upright the paper will not get hot enough to ignite, but if the balloon is tilted (say, by the wind or by hitting some object), it may catch fire while still in the air. All the paper will usually burn in a few seconds, but the flame source may remain lit until it hits the ground.

Sky lanterns have also been alleged to pose a danger to aircraft.

On 1 July 2013 the ‘largest fire ever’ in the West Midlands of England, involving 100,000 tonnes of recycling material and causing an estimated six million pounds worth of damage, was started by a sky lantern which landed at a plastics recycling plant in Smethwick. Images of the lantern starting the fire were captured on CCTV. In response to the fire, Poundland decided to stop selling sky lanterns and recalled their entire stock on 6 July 2013.

The video below, at the 11-second mark, shows the sky lantern falling into the Smethwick plastics recycling plant in Smethwick, referred to above. Look at the very top of the picture.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

5 thoughts on “National Park Service discourages the use of fire balloons”

  1. This should already be illegal because it’s littering. Ever seen a sign along the side of the highway that says “$xxx fine for throwing burning material on the ground” They’re referring to cigarette butts but this seems pretty similar. NPS shouldn’t have to discourage the lanterns, they should be able to just say, “These lanterns are illegal and reckless.”

  2. Each park could include prohibiting the use of such Sky Lanterns using special regulations for that individual park or on a national level include prohibiting the use under the applicable Code of Federal Regulations. But that might take a long, long time to happen on the national level.

    Many years ago a group of now retired NPS employees would launch home made sky lanterns up wind of the Lodge overlooking the Grand Canyon on winter nights creating a rash of UFO reports from people seeing them drift along. When such reports made it to the Flagstaff or Phoenix areas some of the foil hat crowd would soon arrive seeking out the secret UFO base in the Grand Canyon.

  3. Sky lanterns should be banned everywhere. Every fire department should be made aware- they are against fire code as fires should never be left unattended. It is very disconcerting, we have contacted the BLM, Forest Service, Fire Marshals Association, & Wildfire Today – alerting them of Rise Lantern Festival, yet we received no replies. This article shows – our email was received. We have had to inform small town fire departments ourselves of this flaming trash. There has got to be a better way to alert all fire chiefs in the US. We have had two occasions where these lanterns fell feet from our house, one just this morning! Please help us get the word out to the public. Peace, Danielle & Chelsea http://balloonsblow.org/

  4. I completely disagree. Yes, they are dangerous, but they shouold not be banned. With proper supervision and cleanup, it is possible to safely hold lantern festivals and similar events. Instead of banning them and depriving the world of seeing something as beautiful as the night sky filled with lanterns, we should focus on informing people about proper use and cleanup of the lanterns to promote safety.

    1. D.R., so you have no problem with the dozens of fires that the dangerous devices have started?

      And, how do you propose to “clean up” the dozens or thousands of lanterns that travel miles away from their launch point? You’re OK with leaving all that trash in the environment, often on private land?

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