Md. fire marshal bans sky lanterns

Maryland's Fire Marshall has banned sky lanterns, the increasingly popular paper balloons that are sent aloft by the heat of a candle or fuel cell suspended from the bottom.

"They're made with oiled rice paper and bamboo — it's almost kindling," said Deputy State Fire Marshal Bruce D. Bouch. "They have to land somewhere, and sometimes they're still partly on fire when they hit the ground. They've been known to ignite dry vegetation."

Bouch said the fire marshal's office frequently gets calls from people interested in using sky lanterns in weddings or other celebrations who want to know if they are legal in Maryland. Bouch said the devices fall under the existing ban against aerial fireworks, and the office decided to add the specific term "sky lantern" since they have become popular.

The balloons have been used in Asia for years, and in fact, according to a recent article in a Taiwan newspaper, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to an annual sky lantern festival there last week. Traditionally, people write new year's wishes and send them up in the lanterns, according to the article, and because this year's festival coincided with Valentine's Day, some of the balloons were shaped like hearts.

"They're very mesmerizing," Bouch said of pictures he's seen of hundreds of illuminated balloons floating across the night sky. "But given air currents, they can reach a high altitude and travel extremely long distances. As with anything uncontrolled in flight, the potential for tragedy is involved."

The lanterns have proved hazardous in some cases — there have been reports of the balloons landing on a house or a field and igniting fires. While no such fires have been reported in Maryland, Bouch said, the marshal's office wanted to be proactive and prevent the use of what could be a hazardous device.

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