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Sky Lanterns
updated: Jan 05, 2013, 11:00 AM

By David Powdrell

Every now and then, I've seen paper-like, candle-lit lanterns float gently aloft from the camp sites at the Carpinteria State Campground. They're usually launched at sunset and I have to confess, they're beautiful to watch; glowing colorful lamps that drift in the sky.

On this New Year's Eve, I came upon a campsite gearing up for a launch near the beach and got a few photos. When I got home, I wanted to learn more about these flying lamps. Here's what I learned:

Some believe that the Kongming Lanterns were the first hot air balloons invented by the Chinese sage and military strategist Zhuge Liang. They were deployed at the turn of the 3rd century as a type of signaling balloon during war. Others believe the lanterns were invented long before Liang's era, perhaps as early as the Warring States period (around 475 BC). Either way, they're old and seem to have had some military purpose.

Today, they're popular at Chinese, Taiwanese and Thai festivals.

But they come with some inherent risks. Upon landing they've been known to start fires. Launched in strong winds is a recipe for disaster. Upon landing, the leftover thin wire frame may present a hazard to any animal tempted to swallow it.

Home Depot and Amazon, purveyors of sky lanterns, taut that they're "100% biodegradable, made of flame retardant paper, have non-drip, fast lighting, long burning fuel cells, can fly over a mile high and are great for weddings, 4th of July, birthdays, anniversaries, parties and more!"

Are they legal, I wondered? I'd hate to see one drift into an old eucalyptus tree.

The California State Fire Marshal issued Information Bulletin 12-005 on June 8, 2012 entitled Sky Lanterns. My layperson's read is that deploying a sky lantern violates a slew of code regulations (Title 19, Section 3.14, Health and Safety Code, Sections 13001 and 13009, and Public Resources Code Sections 4421 and 4435). These codes basically state that fire in the sky in bad, unsafe and illegal.

So as beautiful as they are, if you launch them know that there may be some significant repercussions. As my good friend Fos Campbell always says, "Do the right thing."

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