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.
"Everybody likes them; they just have a general appeal and they don't make any noise," said Bill Barnes, manager of Pro Fireworks in Acme. "People need to be careful it's not windy when they are doing it, but I've never heard of one incident in the million that we've sold."
Several web sites also promote the item as wish lanterns for special events and weddings.
Belcher said he's fielded several requests from groups who wanted to "light off a whole bunch of them," including one company that wanted to send off about 60 of them for a company anniversary celebration.
Several states have outlawed the lanterns, but they remain legal in Michigan.
Flaming lanterns also concern Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials, said Paul Kollmeyer, the DNR's resource protection manager. The state hasn't had any incidents this year, but the potential for fire still exists.
"When they don't go as designed, then you have a wildfire," he said.
Wind creates the most likely scenario of a fire hazard. It can push in a side of the device and allow warm air to escape, or air currents can push them onto trees and roofs. Officials cited such lanterns as the cause of fires ranging from a hotel roof in Minnesota to recycling facility in England that took firefighters three days to extinguish.
Lanterns frequently have landed on property owned by someone other than the launcher, prompting complaints from several area residents to their respective township officials.
"I didn't purchase this property to have people sending in their trash from above," Gilbert said. "I think it's rude."
Area officials said it's up to the state to regulate sky lanterns, and thus far no one has heard of any efforts to address them.
Leelalanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich told Elmwood Township officials it likely will take a lantern-sparked forest fire to prompt state action to ban them.