Fire in the Sky


I suppose some people might think me a kill-joy but that is a risk I will take in questioning the wisdom of lighting fires and allowing them to be carried on the wind to land we know not where. That, however, is precisely what happens when sky lanterns are used.

Sky or Chinese lanterns have been used in Asia for centuries and are basically a small hot air balloon made from paper with a small fire source such as a candle or block of wax providing the lift. They are also sometimes referred to as fire balloons and were the inspiration for the Japanese Fu-Go or windship weapon in the Second World War, a balloon carrying an incendiary device.

Freely available online at low prices, one supplier boasts that their product can rise to 1,500 feet and burn for twenty minutes travelling miles in the process. Some retailers such as Tesco have, to their credit, removed sky lanterns from sale.

So what are the dangers? Firstly there is the obvious risk of starting a fire especially when used on dry summer evenings. Lanterns from one recent event on Holy Island started a fire on nearby sand dunes which took twenty fire-fighters several hours to extinguish. Last summer a plastic re-cycling plant in Smethwick went up in smoke – 100,000 tonnes and £6 million lost, attributed to a sky lantern by the fire service and which required the efforts of 200 fire-fighters to bring under control. In rural areas the risk to crops, hay, straw and farm buildings should not be underestimated.

Secondly, there is a serious risk to livestock. Most lanterns have a wire frame and even when the fire has gone out these can cause serious injury to horses, cattle and sheep when they ingest the remnants. Sharp parts can injure an animal’s throat and stomach causing internal bleeding and leading to an agonising death. Wild animals can become entangled in the wires. Some lanterns are said to be bio-degradable because the frames are made of bamboo – slivers of bamboo are needle sharp and in any case it takes decades to decompose.

Used near the coast lanterns have been mistaken for flares and have wasted the time of the Coastguard and the RNLI in searching for non-existent mariners in distress. One wonders how many alleged UFO sightings have been a flying paper bag powered by a firelighter rather than an inter-stellar spaceship running on anti-matter!

Some rural organisations like the CLA have called for sky lanterns to be banned and the Government has indicated it will consider such a ban. Should it actually be necessary to ban something which is self-evidently as reckless as lighting a bonfire and letting it drift wherever the wind takes it?

First published by the Barnsley Chronicle – Penistone Living June 2014