Sky Lanterns: Beautiful but Dangerous and Now Illegal

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    Sky lanterns. Most residents have seen them – ethereal blobs of light that seem to float over the beach. No, they are not UFO’s, but they have been causing trouble with Earth-bound critters and property owners, prompting the Town Council of Fort Myers Beach to ban them last week as part of the beach chair vendor ordinance.

    Otherwise known as Chinese Lanterns, sky lanterns have really been gaining popularity over the last couple of years as they may seem to be the perfect way to memorialize a lost loved one and/or seal a union between two people as the brightly lit flame appears to float to the heavens – carrying the love and dreams of the folks left on land with it.

    Unfortunately, the old adage of what goes up must come down even applies to seemingly magical lanterns, and what happens to them when they return to the ground is what’s causing the concern.

    “We’ve had a number of complaints over the years,” said Mayor Anita Cereceda. “They are magnificent and beautiful to watch, but what most people don’t realize is the fuel cells on these things are significant. It’s not like setting a piece of paper on fire – they burn a long time, and there is no way to control where they go.”

    One beachfront property owner complained that sky lanterns set her tiki hut on fire on New Year’s Eve, and another resident reported that she’d seen ‘thousands’ set off near Time Square on New Year’s Eve and no one did anything about it.

    “All it takes is for one to land in the wrong place, then we have a tragedy,” Leah Gregg wrote to Council and to the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department shortly before the ordinance was passed.

    Fire Marshall Captain Ron Martin wrote back to Gregg, saying the department is limited in what it can do so they partner with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO).

    “As far as your Fire District, we enforce the civil aspects of the Fire Protection Code and Fire Prevention Statutes, our role is limited as what we can do since we are not Certified Law Enforcement Officers operating under the Auspice of the Local Sheriff,” Martin said. “Our actions have been as follows for the last 5 years: Direct intervention on the beachfront with individuals starting fires, displaying fireworks, igniting and shooting fireworks into crowds, and releasing lanterns (This has proven to be ineffective); Posting of Signs Beachfront (This is absolutely ineffective because the signs get removed, mutilated, and destroyed); Identification of local retailers selling these devices and educating them that they are not approved per the State Fire Marshal’s Sparkler List.”

    Sky lanterns have been made in Asia for centuries, with thousands being released at festivals. They are simple constructions – consisting of a small hot air balloon made of paper, with an opening at the bottom where a small candle or fuel cell is cradled. They work in much the same way as large hot air balloons, in that the flame heats the air inside the lantern, lowering its density and causing it to rise. When the fuel is gone, what is left of the lantern sinks back to the ground, along with the thin wire frame used to support the paper.

    As their popularity has spread across the world, so have accidents caused by either the fire used to keep them aloft or the wires left behind being ingested by wildlife – leaving many communities with no other choice but to ban them like ours just did.

    In 2011, 40 sky lanterns sent a loft during a wedding taking place on the Manatee/Sarasota County line landed on the runways at the Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport, shutting down air traffic.

    In 2013, Nancy Richie, Environmental Specialist for the City of Marco Island, determined the lanterns to be illegal both under their city ordinance and under a state ordinance, which she says classifies them as ‘litter’. The state law – State Florida Statute 379.233 – prohibits “the release of 10 or more sky lanterns, or lighter-than-air balloons, within a 24-hour period; violators can incur $250 fine”.

    “Even though most manufacturers of these lanterns tout “100% biodegradable”, there is a period of time, at least several months, in which the lantern material would persist in the Gulf of Mexico,” Richie said. “The “biodegradable” label typically equates to less time in a landfill, not that it instantly decomposes. The debris or trash left from the sky lantern when it lands on the Gulf or on land is often ingested by wildlife and does cause harm. There is also concern about the open fire and winds over the Gulf.”

    Other Florida communities have banned them using the state prohibition against unauthorized fireworks – something Fort Myers Beach Fire Marshall Ron Martin applies to our island too.

    “Florida has very comprehensive statutes governing fireworks, and enforcement of these statute are left to local law enforcement,” he said.

    Martin provided us with a copy of the ‘State Fire Marshall’s List of Approved Sparklers’ – which are the list of fireworks approved for sale in the state of Florida. The list includes everything from Black Cats to an assortment of fizzy sparklers to spinners to firecrackers, but no sky lanterns.

    In our Land Development Code (LDC), the change has been made to section 14-11, Special Events on the Beach, (6): “The release of sky lanterns or any other device that uses an open flame to provide buoyancy is prohibited anywhere within Town limits”. All Town ordinances are enforced by our local code enforcement officers.

    “Our job is to be constantly vigilant with regards to public safety,” Mayor Cereceda told us. “As innocuous as they seem, those of us who have tried to light them and have it fly back in our face on a windy night can attest that they are not safe. You’re basically sending a ball of fire into the sky – a ball of fire with a fuel source and a wick.”

    Keri Hendry Weeg