Weather Updates

Fire dept. wants to ban airborne lanterns and other ‘floating fireworks’

Chicago may ban sky lanterns like this one.  |  AP file photo

Chicago may ban sky lanterns like this one. | AP file photo

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Updated: January 8, 2013 6:23AM

Chicago would ban the sale of airborne paper lanterns and other “floating fireworks” popular at weddings and graduations, under a crackdown advanced Thursday to avert a “conflagration.”

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee approved the ban after Deputy Fire Commissioner Richard C. Ford II warned that the miniature hot-air balloons could trigger fires, particularly during current drought conditions.

Aerial luminaries known as sky lanterns made popular in Asian cultures are supposed to signify good luck. But the open-flame devices sent aloft have proven to be a significant fire hazard.

“What goes up must come down,” Ford told aldermen.

“These products land in trees. They can land on your home, a garage, dry vegetation, on any public street or an expressway. It’s an uncontrolled potential source of conflagration and the risk is too great to be allowed. . . . We’re in a drought situation in Illinois. It’s a huge hazard.”

Ford described the typical sky lantern as three feet wide and three feet tall with a wire frame basket that houses a candle-like “fuel cell.” When lit, hot gas fills the balloon so the device can be released into the air.

Ideally, the fire goes out before the lantern hits the ground. But Ford said there have been cases around the country and overseas where lit devices have landed and either caused fires or forced motorists to swerve and crash.

The Federal Aviation Administration also has raised concerns.

“They do get high in the air. They can go anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 feet [high], so anything stuck in that pathway — a plane could hit it,” Ford said.

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) added, “If that lands in a tree — if that lands on a tile roof, that’s highly flammable.”

Four states — Hawaii, Minnesota, California and Utah — have already banned the sale of sky lanterns, which can be purchased online or at most big-box and retail drug stores.

Some countries — including Austria and Germany — only allow sky lanterns to be released under “controlled circumstances” far from residential areas when there is no wind.

Public Safety Committee Chairman Jim Balcer (11th) asked a city attorney whether Sam’s Club, Walgreens and other retailers would be ordered to take sky lanterns off their shelves.

“I want to make sure that the ones that do have it are told they can’t sell these anymore,” Balcer said.

Senior Assistant Corporation Counsel Vicki Kraft replied, “That would probably be a good idea from an enforcement” standpoint.

Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said sky lanterns are “relatively new” to Chicago and department brass are trying to “get ahead” of the hazard.

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