Sky lanterns (or Chinese lanterns) have been used for centuries as part of festivals, especially in the East. They’ve become increasingly popular in South Africa as a way to add romance to events like weddings, and on Guy Fawkes and New Year’s Eve as a variation on fireworks.
Essentially miniature hot-air balloons, the lanterns are made of paper over a wire or bamboo frame, enclosing a heat source – a naked flame – that causes them to rise. Often released en masse, they make for a pretty, peaceful spectacle in a dark sky.
What goes up, must come down
The problem is that sky lanterns don’t just disappear into the stratosphere; they must fall back to earth, at which point they become decidedly unpretty – and downright dangerous.
Rob Erasmus, manager of Enviro Wildfire Services, based in Cape Town, has issued a plea not to use sky lanterns on Guy Fawkes (Wednesday, 5 November) – or on any other occasion.
Says Erasmus: “It's particularly important at this time of year for residents in the Western Cape, which has now entered the summer wildfire season. Sky lanterns have the potential to drift and land in bush where they can start fires.”
Last year, for example, a sky lantern started a huge fire when it landed at a plastics recycling plant in the West Midlands of England, causing an estimated six million pounds' (over R100 million) worth of damage.
Cape Town’s Community Fire Safety Bylaw does not mention sky lanterns specifically, but they fall into the category of “flame-emitting device, such as a candle, lantern or torch” which “may not be used in a manner likely to create a fire hazard”. This effectively outlaws use of the lanterns in the metropolitan area.
Sky lanterns are not clearly regulated in the rest of the country, however, and are feely available for purchase online.
Several other countries have banned sky lanterns outright, including Austria, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Spain, Germany, parts of Canada and some states in the USA.
Aviation authorities are also concerned that sky lanterns can distract pilots and get sucked into aircraft engines, and some, such as those in Bangkok, have banned their use near airports. The Guardian reports that the Thai government has threatened anyone releasing lanterns too close to airports with the death penalty.
Fake distress signals
Craig Lambinon, spokesperson for the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), says the organisation also discourages the use of sky lanterns because of the associated fire risk.
In addition, he says, if the lanterns drift out over the sea, “People often mistake them for red marine distress flares and call the NSRI; false callouts are a huge waste of time and resources."
The NSRI states that they are compelled to conduct a search, unless witnesses can be found who are 100 percent sure that the reported “flare” was a sky lantern and definitely not a flare.
'Flaming aerial trash'
The advocacy organisation Balloons Blow (which also objects to helium balloons on similar environmental grounds) calls sky lanterns “flaming aerial trash”, and explains that they become a form of pollution when they fall, especially those with wire frames.
The paper component, while unsightly, burns or decomposes fairly rapidly, but the wire persists and poses a hazard to farm and wild animals who can ingest it or get entangled.
A dead barn owl in the UK found entangled in sky lantern debris. (RSPCA)
The bang and the whimper: fireworks are your pets' worst nightmare
5 fireworks disasters
Can you outrun a wildfire?
Bangkok Post, November 2014. Sky lanterns banned near city airports
BBC, July 2013. Smethwick fire: Chinese lantern 'caused largest blaze'
The Guardian, November 2014. Thai authorities threaten sky lantern fans with death penalty
Image of sky lanterns: Shutterstock
Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.