South Carolina is close to banning the use of “sky lanterns,” a sort of small, paper hot air balloon that is sometimes released into the air at weddings or festivals. They come from ancient China, but have recently seen increased popularity in the United States. They are also known as “Kongming lanterns.”
The South Carolina Fire Marshal’s Office has recommended that the devices be classified as “recreational fire,” under South Carolina’s version of the 2012 International Fire Code. That means they must be “constantly attended,” which is impossible if the lantern is floating high above the ground.
Fire Marshal Shane Ray says his office and others consider the lanterns a severe fire hazard because, once released, they can land anywhere. “Our concern is, naturally, to prevent fires and keep the number of fires down,” he told South Carolina Radio Network, “We thought this was the best way to go about it… we added it to the fire code.”
The regulation was among dozens of amendments included in South Carolina’s version of the 2012 International Fire Code. The code had been approved by the South Carolina Building Codes Council last year. It will automatically take effect this summer if the South Carolina General Assembly does not act. The Senate voted to approve the overall fire code Thursday in a 32-9 vote (most of the “no” votes were for a separate issue). A House regulations subcommittee gave its okay to the regulations a day earlier.
Committee chair State Rep. Shannon Erickson (R-Beaufort) supported the ban. Erickson said she had never heard of sky lanterns until learning about them while planning her daughter’s wedding. “It’s a fad right now and we don’t want them to get out of control,” she said.
State officials have been eyeing them with suspicion in recent years— especially after one was blamed for starting a more than 800-acre fire in Horry County two years ago. South Carolina Forestry Commission law enforcement chief David West said the lanterns may also be to blame for other fires where a cause was never determined, since the heat and flames could have destroyed any evidence of the paper lantern.
“If people followed the instructions on the label and use it as the label says, it would be a good thing,” West said. However, that includes an instruction to not release the sky lanterns in winds over 5 miles per hour. “Where on the coastline are you going to find winds less than five miles an hour?” he added.
The regulation change does not actually ban the sale of the lanterns. A person would still be allowed to tether or anchor them, as well. It also remains unclear how well a ban could actually be enforced, since law enforcement can only charge a violator the cost of removing or recovering the lantern.
Ray said he believed the lanterns are different from fireworks, as fireworks are designed to burn out shortly after they are fired, “With these, considering that they’re free in the air on their own, it’s… good luck where they land. Certainly (fireworks) are a little more regulated.”