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Not A Bright Idea: Sky Lanterns Illegal, Dangerous

By Mandy Valencia

Mail Tribune

Sky lanterns emit an idyllic, soft glow as they float across the night sky. But that beauty masks the inherent danger of the airborne flames, police and fire officials say.

And while they are lovely, they are also illegal, says Lt. Mike Budreau of the Medford Police Department.

A sky lantern is a paper sack suspended over a flame, usually from a small candle. The heated air from the flame causes it to become weightless and rise into the air, to be carried off by the wind.

Medford police and fire officials have seen the popularity of the aerial lanterns rise in recent months. Around the New Year’s holiday there were several sightings of the lanterns in the sky, and a recent launching of several of the lanterns during a celebration in Medford caused numerous calls to authorities, he said.

“They slowly ascend through the air, and they illuminate and look very nice,” said Budreau. “But from a safety standpoint, they are very dangerous.”

And illegal.

“Anything that travels more than 12 inches vertically is considered an illegal firework,” said Budreau.

While people may assume the floating lanterns are harmless this time of year because most areas are saturated with moisture, fire officials disagree.

“From a fire safety standpoint, it isn’t the smartest thing to do,” said Captain Jim Campbell of Fire District No. 5, a hot-air balloon enthusiast himself.

“It’s basically the same operation as a hot-air balloon, other than it being illegal,” said Campbell, who added that he wasn’t aware of any fires being started by one locally.

The popularity of the sky lanterns has been spread by social media sites such as Pinterest that provide links on how to make the lanterns at home. Local stores have sold the lanterns for special events in the past, as well.

“It’s just a new thing we’re seeing; it’s a new thing to do,” said Budreau. “But we don’t want it to catch on because they are illegal. If you’re going to be doing it in the summertime, obviously that could be disastrous.”

Budreau said that, other than water, there’s really no safe place for the lanterns to come down. And, of course, there’s no way to know where they’ll end up once they are launched.

“They have to come down somewhere, and in a residential area it’s very dangerous,” said Budreau, “They could start a fire or get tangled up in some trees on the way up. Even this time of year you don’t want a burning bag landing on your property or your yard.”

Numerous countries, including Germany, Australia and Brazil, have outlawed sky lanterns.

When people see the ominous hovering lanterns, they often call 911, said Campbell.

“So then we’re out chasing lanterns in the sky when we have actual fire calls to go on,” said Campbell.

In September, a resident on Modoc Avenue in Medford brought to a fire station a burned sky lantern she found in her juniper bush, appalled at would could have happened, according to a release from Fire Marshal Greg Kleinberg.

Police say anyone launching a sky lantern could face a fine and a reckless burning charge and be held responsible for property damage and the associated fire-suppression costs.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mandy Valencia at or 541-776-4486.

This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.

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