Recent events in Chicago, and elsewhere, highlight the well-known fact that the consumer fireworks industry is never far away from regulation and legal exposure.
In Chicago, local fire officials now seek to ban the sale of aerial luminaries, such as airborne paper lanterns, that have become increasingly popular. Paper, or sky, lanterns have a long tradition in Asian cultures and supposedly symbolize good luck while, in contrast, they symbolize a fire threat to most, if not all, fire officials. Introduced several years ago into the US, paper lanterns and related devices are now a common sight at weddings and graduations.
Ironically, one of the prime attributes to sky lanterns—its mobility and unpredictability—is also the prime focus of concern amongst fire officials. The laws of gravity are seemingly exemplified by this simple and whimsical, yet elegant aerial device; what goes up must come down. However, unlike hot air balloons, the ascent and descent of a sky lantern is completely uncontrolled and based solely upon the prevailing environmental conditions. The potential for a sky lantern to ascend, or descend, into an obstruction such as a tree or overhead wires, or even roadways and overpasses, is both real and credible. The ascent has the greatest potential for danger of combustion since it is likely to be fully lit during ascent while, on descent, it is in the process of being extinguished or is fully extinguished. Not surprisingly, the risks of unintended fires only increases in localities suffering drought conditions.
While I, personally, always was fascinated by the sky lantern its usefulness is seemingly limited. At best, these devices are suitable for beaches or other locations on or at a body of water when the winds are favorable for, ideally, a water landing. Each year, sky lanterns have the subject or cause of home and forest fires, as well as car accidents involving motorists being struck, or avoiding, a sky landing on descent. The fact that sky lanterns can reach upwards of 1,500 ft. also poses a real and credible risk of collision of interference with low-flying aircraft.
The additional fact that sky lanterns travel substantial distances from their point of origin also makes tracing ownership, and responsibility for any damages, extremely difficult. Unlike the typical mishap involving a malfunctioning consumer device where the operator is readily identifiable (in fact, more often than not, the operator is the person injured) sky lanterns operate with relative anonymity. In sum, sky lanterns provoke an ‘out of sight out of mind’ mentality which is an anathema to the safe and responsible discharge of consumer fireworks.
In conclusion, do not be surprised to find sky lanterns in the news for all the wrong reasons. Given the current groundswell seeking to ban these devices, I suspect that the days of these devices being sold in the US are numbered. Also numbered are the days of 2012 and, on that thought, I wish all my readers a wonderful and joyous holiday season and prosperous and healthy new year.