Traverse City Record-Eagle

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August 30, 2013

Area officials cite concerns over flying lanterns

TRAVERSE CITY — Some cultures embrace flame-fueled sky lanterns to symbolize the floating-away of problems and worries. But the growing popularity of such flying flames sets off alarms for some local fire officials.

Sky lanterns, also known as Chinese flying lanterns, are comprised of a block of paraffin or cardboard suspended by a wire or bamboo frame. The device is ignited to heat air inside a bag created from flame retardant rice or tissue paper to send the lantern aloft, similar to a hot air balloon.

The lanterns should land, in theory, when the flame goes out. But theory isn't always practice.

Such floating flames already caused at least two fires in the area, one that sparked a fire in a pine tree at Traverse City State Park on one lantern's ascent, and another prompted a small garage fire when a lantern prematurely landed.

"They're a hazard, that's for sure," said Brian Belcher, assistant fire chief for the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department. "As soon as you let one go, you have no control over it."

John Gilbert has had three or four lanterns land in the jack and white pines trees that surround his Elmwood Township home. He used to think it was one of his neighbors until he noticed several of them floating along high in the air on his way home one night from Traverse City.

The flame in the lantern typically burns for 10 to 15 minutes and the contraption can reach heights of 400 feet, depending on size and manufacturer.

"It's only a matter of time before one of them causes a fire," Gilbert said. "During dry spells it will only take a little spark in these pine needles."

Flying lanterns' popularity soared this year. They've always been available online, but a 2012 change in Michigan's fireworks law led some shopkeepers to sell them year-round.

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