State Says “Kongming Lanterns” Cannot Be Released Into Air

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The State Building Code Technical Review Board has issued an official interpretation concerning “Kongming Lanterns.”  At their recent meeting the Board determined that the devices fall under the definition of “Recreational Fire” as described in the 2009 Virginia Statewide Fire Prevention Code (SFPC).  This interpretation was issued at the request of the State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO).

A “Recreational Fire” is defined as: an outdoor fire burning materials other than rubbish where the fuel being burned is not contained in an incinerator, outdoor fireplace, portable outdoor fireplace, barbeque grill or barbeque pit and has a total fuel area of 3 feet (914 mm) or less in diameter and 2 feet (610 mm) or less in height for pleasure, religious, ceremonial, cooking, warmth or similar purposes.

The Board further determined that under the definition of recreational fire these devices must be constantly attended to which essentially makes the devices illegal in Virginia unless they are anchored or tethered in some manner.  State code says that open burning, bonfires, recreational fires and use of portable outdoor fireplaces shall be constantly attended until the fire is extinguished.

Kongming Lanterns are airborne paper lanterns traditionally found in some Asian cultures. They are constructed from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame, and contain a small candle or fuel cell composed of a waxy flammable material. When lit, the flame heats the air inside the lantern, thus lowering its density causing the lantern to rise into the air. The sky lantern is only airborne for as long as the flame stays alight, after which the lantern floats back to the ground.  Kongming Lanterns are being used in a variety of venues such as weddings, ceremonies and celebrations.

There are a number of safety concerns with these devices, ranging from the obvious fire risks to dangers to livestock and aircraft. Since sky lanterns contain a flame, there is the danger that they can cause a fire when landing on flammable ground or becoming entangled in trees.  After the balloon lands, the leftover thin wire frame may present a hazard to any animal tempted to swallow it. Additionally, there have been reports in some countries along coastal areas of the lanterns being mistaken for marine distress flares, triggering unnecessary and costly rescue operations.

The marketing of “Kongming Lanterns”, sometimes referred to as “sky lanterns or wish lanterns”, has generated a number of inquiries to fire officials in the Commonwealth of Virginia on the use of such lanterns. In addition to private citizens making inquiries, the opinion of the SFMO has been sought by a few local fire officials on the appropriateness of using the lanterns and/or if their use violated provisions of the SFPC. This same inquiry is being discussed by fire officials on a national level via informal forums for the exchange of information and ideas.

In Virginia, some localities have amended the SFPC to prohibit the use of these lanterns unless a permit has been properly secured.