Releasing Chinese lanterns would be illegal if new fire code passes

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24 2013 5:15 p.m. MST

Robbie Parker prepares to release a lantern during the community memorial vigil at Ben Lomond High School in Ogden for Emilie Parker, one of the children murdered during the recent school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. Such lanterns could be outlawed if the Utah Legislature passes proposed amendments to the state fire code.

Ben Brewer, Deseret News archives

BOUNTIFUL — Chinese lanterns, the floating paper objects powered by small candles, could soon become illegal in Utah.

Utah State Fire Marshal Coy Porter wants to make it clear that the lanterns pose a real fire danger. When a sky lantern is released, the fire moves away from the person and technically becomes an unattended fire.

"They have no control (of the lantern) once it leaves their hands. It goes until wherever it goes," he said, adding that the situation can be especially problematic when 100 or 200 are released at the same time.

Porter said the current law is vague. The proposal would classify sky lanterns released into the sky as unattended fires in the state fire code. An amendment to specifically identify sky lanterns is part of proposed legislation sponsored by Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville.

Porter said that since the release of the Disney movie "Tangled," the use of Chinese lanterns has been increasing.

If the Utah Legislature passes the amendment to the state's fire code, "Sky lanterns as they're done in the Disney movies will be illegal in the state of Utah," Porter said. "The biggest problem is just if they're slightly damaged, there's a small rip, they don't get the elevation, they can still come down while the flame is still going in there."

But while the lanterns are still legal, one group is planning to launch 200 lanterns over Utah Lake for the Chinese New Year.

"It's always been on my bucket list, to see it or be a part of it," said Ty Imamura, who is planning the event. "I know in some Asian cultures, people write wishes or hopes for the year and then light it and let it go. It's kind of like releasing their hopes."

During the wedding rehearsal for former BYU and current NBA basketball player Jimmer Fredette last May, hundreds of lanterns were released into the Denver sky. One of those lanterns landed in a neighbor's yard and lit a tree on fire. Fortunately, it didn't do too much damage.

Last summer, Porter said a wildland fire in St. George was also started as a result of a sky lantern.

The fire marshal said merchants that sell the Chinese lanterns seem to be on the same page, since they aren't a major revenue source.

"Even though they look wonderful, can be symbolic, have a lot of meaning, we just want to make sure that they don't have an incident that would cause a lot of damage to property," he said.

"We're not trying to limit people's desire to celebrate," Porter said. "But releasing 100 or so at a wedding" can be dangerous. And anyone who causes a fire can be liable for it.

Imamura said he understands the safety concerns and doesn't begrudge the proposed changes.

"In the summer, I could see maybe it's a problem," Imamura said. "You can't really control it."

He said his Chinese New Year plans are still on, however, and a couple of hundred people are expected to be there.

E-mail: manderson@desnews.com

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