Sky lanterns spark bans in more communities

Evan Carter
The Detroit News

A growing number of Metro Detroit communities, especially Downriver, are banning the use of popular sky lanterns over fears the floating fires could spark unintended blazes.

Allen Park is the latest considering an ordinance that would rid its skies of the lanterns. Other communities such as Lincoln Park, Melvindale and Wyandotte have passed similar bans.

Sky lanterns fill the sky in downtown Grand Rapids as part of “Lights in the Night” during ArtPrize in 2012.

Canton Township and Sterling Heights are looking into bans.

Allen Park 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.

Supporters of the ordinance say that it protects residents from unintended fires, but opponents say the city’s worries are unfounded.

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.

Sky lanterns originated in China over 1,000 years ago and have become popular in the United States in the last 10-15 years. In Michigan, a Lantern Fest is scheduled in Marne in October. And a Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize entry in 2012, “Lights in the Night,” had the city aglow with the release of 15,000 lanterns.

Rick Zahler’s Chinese lantern takes flight in Pinckney. They are classified as aerial candles, not fireworks, in Michigan.

Yet their sales have already been banned in a number of states, including Illinois.

While sky lanterns are not classified as fireworks but as aerial candles in Michigan, state officials have urged residents to be careful with them, along with bottle rockets and Roman candles, after the state’s 2011 fireworks law relaxed restrictions on the consumer-grade devices that leave the ground.

In addition to being banned in some Downriver communities, other Metro Detroit communities have recently debated sky lantern bans. The Canton Township Board of Trustees voted to begin the process to ban them July 28, and, a week later, the Sterling Heights City Council proposed a ban.

A sky lantern is a balloon-shaped piece of paper that typically has a bamboo frame with a fuel pad at the bottom to provide lift. Once the fuel pad is lit, the lantern fills with hot air and rises, much like a hot air balloon.

A fuel pad will typically stay lit for five minutes, resulting in the sky lantern rising over half a mile. They often land miles away from when they were released, with their flame extinguished, and only the outside remaining. Fires started by sky lanterns generally occur during their ascent.

Harry Gilliam, CEO of SkyLantern.us, a company that imports sky lanterns from China, acknowledged there are some dangers but believes they are still mostly safe.

“This is an intuitive, gut reaction by fire marshals,” Gilliam said. “For a product that has live fire, I think this is as safe as it gets.”

Kris Marrs, who is a firefighter in West Bloomfield Township but lives in Allen Park, is supportive of his city banning sky lanterns.

A number have landed on his property over the years even though none were still lit. He said he has seen burning sky lanterns on other properties.

In his 15 years as a firefighter, Marrs says he has seen fires started by a number of things that have small flames, including cigarette butts.

Sky lanterns “look pretty, but don’t use them. You’re sending a fireball to who knows where,” Marrs said.

Other Allen Park residents have stories of sky lanterns falling on their properties.

“We have had photographic evidence of (sky lanterns) landing on people’s properties or roofs,” Cann said.

Dylan Woolley, a manager at Pro Fireworks in Taylor, opposes a ban on sky lanterns and says he hasn’t received complaints about them at his store.

“That’s our best seller,” he said. “We’re not selling too many fireworks anymore, but we have a bunch of people buying sky lanterns.”

Woolley says that sky lanterns are becoming increasingly popular at weddings and funerals.

The price varies depending on quality and size but are generally inexpensive. They can be purchased in a 10 pack for $17.99 at Pro Fireworks, while SkyLantern.us, whose sky lanterns are fire retardant, charges $29.89 for12.

Allen Park resident John Wrixon opposes the ban and believes the city is wasting its time trying to stop what he believes to be relatively safe fun.

“They shouldn’t be wasting their time enforcing things like that,” Wrixon said. “Allen Park hasn’t burned down yet, and I’ve seen hundreds of them this summer.”

Allen Park City Councilman Dennis Hayes believes a ban on sky lanterns will pass, even while acknowledging they’re still popular in the city.

“Around the Fourth of July, I personally observed about seven within about 10 blocks of my home,” he said.

The ordinance is waiting for its third reading as well as a public hearing. Allen Park Deputy Clerk Jim Grose believes it will be adopted during the city’s Aug. 25 or Sept. 8 council meetings.

If Allen Park’s ordinance passes without changes, violators could be charged with a misdemeanor and up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail. Lincoln Park has similar penalties.

Cann believes it’s important that Allen Park is joining other Downriver communities in banning sky lanterns.

“A ban here doesn’t totally protect our citizens unless the city downwind bans it as well,” he said.

ejcarter@detroitnews.com