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City, fire officials say sky lanterns can be dangerous

Sunday, October 21, 2012 | 4:51 p.m. CDT

INDEPENDENCE — Some municipal officials in Missouri and Kansas want to permanently ground lanterns that float through the night sky, saying they are dangerous balls of fire that could spark blazes when they land.

The lanterns have become popular for holidays and family celebrations. Most are made of thin paper wrapped around a wire or bamboo frame. When an attached candle or other heat source warms the air inside, they rise and float away.

Opponents say the lanterns aren't controlled, float wherever the wind carries them and have open flames that could be dangerous if they land on combustible material.

"We are trying to educate people that these lanterns are not safe," Independence Fire Chief Sandy Schiess said.

The Independence Fire Department has urged its city council to restrict sky lanterns while it pushes the Missouri fire marshal to issue a statewide ban, the Kansas City Star reported.

In Kansas, Johnson County fire officials are trying to spread the word about the potential dangers until they update their fire codes.

"While they look very beautiful — and I understand the attraction — it is easy to see that you could have problems," said Jason Rhodes, a spokesman for the Overland Park Fire Department. "These are not something we want used in our city."

Mike Collar, the president of Winco Fireworks Inc. in Prairie Village, said critics are overreacting. He said the lanterns stay aloft until the flames burn out and all the hot air has escaped.

"It is like any other product. With proper use and education, they are very, very safe, actually," he said. "Unfortunately, some people don't read the instructions."

Sky lanterns shouldn't be launched when it's too windy, and users should make sure the lantern is fully inflated before lighting the flame, he said.

It's illegal to launch sky lanterns in California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Tennessee and Virginia. They also have been outlawed in Austria, Australia, Brazil, Germany, New Zealand and Spain, according to a presentation shown to the Independence City Council.

Schiess said some people told firefighters during Fourth of July celebrations that they had to put out small fires in their yards when the lanterns didn't launch.

Earlier this year, members of the Johnson County Fire & Emergency Services Chiefs Association agreed that each community would consider amending fire codes to ultimately create a countywide ban.

Olathe Fire Marshal Brad Henson said he didn't know of any fires caused by sky lanterns in his city, but he still wants them banned.

"We know the devices are not completely safe," Henson said. "We are trying to prevent that (a fire caused by a lantern) from happening rather than waiting for something to occur."


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