Sky Lanterns: Beautiful or Dangerous?

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Originally run in the June 4, 2014 edition

By Merab-Michal Favorite

Aerial luminaries have gained popularity in the United States and are sometimes released during weddings and other events. Islander photo: courtesy National Association of Fire Marshals

Aerial luminaries have gained popularity in the United States and are sometimes released during weddings and other events. Islander photo: courtesy National Association of Fire Marshals

Imagine standing in the sand with small waves breaking at your ankles and looking up to see hundreds of flying luminaries drift slowly through the night sky.

“It really is a beautiful scene,” said Christina Mathews, owner of Weddings by Christina, of Sun City. “Sometimes when people are witnessing it for the first time, it actually takes their breath away.”

Mathews, who often coordinates weddings on Anna Maria Island, said the ceremonial release of aerial luminaries has gained popularity in recent years, especially during weddings and remembrance events.

“It’s a nice touch, kind of like releasing butterflies or doves,” Mathews said. “They also make for amazing pictures.”

Suzi Fox, executive director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring, shows Brandenton Beach commissioners remnants of an aerial lantern during their May 22 meeting. Islander photo: Merab-Michal Favorite

Suzi Fox, executive director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring, shows Brandenton Beach commissioners remnants of an aerial lantern during their May 22 meeting. Islander photo: Merab-Michal Favorite

Also known as Chinese lanterns, sky candles and fire balloons, aerial luminaries are essentially miniature hot-air balloons, made of lightweight rice paper and bamboo frames that are kept aloft by a burning candle and are made to disintegrate in the air.

Normally released over the water, the destiny of the flying lantern is greatly dependent on the weather.

“It’s fine unless the wind shifts east,” explained Chief Andy Price, of West Manatee Fire Rescue. “When that happens, you end up with a major fire hazard.”

Just ask Suzi Fox, executive director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring.

Fox recently collected the charred remains of a half dozen aerial lanterns from her Bradenton Beach neighborhood the morning after they were released at a beach wedding ceremony.

“Some ended up on roofs, others were in peoples backyards,” she said May 22 during public comment at the commission meeting. “They say they are environmentally friendly, but I don’t think they are.”

Fox has started a grassroots movement to get the luminaries banned throughout the county.

“I would like to see the whole island on board with this, but I’m starting out with the city I live in because this one was in my backyard,” Fox said as she held up what was left of an aerial lantern.

WMFR Deputy Fire Marshall Jim Davis said he initially didn’t see the need for a special ban on the luminaries because ordinances already in place specifically prohibit the use of fire on the beach.

“We don’t allow fire or fireworks, so why would we allow uncontrolled fire released into the air?” he said. “It seems like a no brainer.”

The luminaires are addressed on a state level through fire codes, according to the National Association of Fire Marshalls, but Davis feels not having them specifically mentioned in the code has caused issues with enforcement.

Davis has been avidly against allowing the release of the lanterns after at least two brush fires were attributed to lanterns on the beach four years ago.

“One of them burned a 20-square-foot area of sea oats and another got entangled in some Australian pines and started a fire,” he said. “Our guys had to put them both out.”

Davis said the occurrence prompted him to speak with several island businesses associated with events to discuss the lanterns.

“I thought we had an understanding that the lanterns were not allowed, but people continue to release them,” he said.

Davis plans to bring the topic up at the June 10 fire marshal meeting, where officials from all the fire organizations within the county get together.

“I think we are going to need a countywide ban on these things,” said Davis. “Here at the beach, they usually go out over the water, but out east there is land and forest and, if that caught fire, there would be some major damage.”

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