Airborne paper lanterns may look pretty floating through the night's sky, but according to fire officials they pose a significant danger.
The town board discussed the lanterns again during a work session on Tuesday, during what happens to be Fire Prevention Week. The board expects to consider a law that would ban the sale of the lanterns in East Hampton Town.
Known as wish lanterns, they are constructed from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame and fill up with hot air after a small candle is lit and then floats wherever the wind takes it.
East Hampton Town Fire Marshal David Browne said on Wednesday that there are several examples of Chinese lanterns, like the ones seen in the 2010 Disney film “Tangled,” causing fires right here in town.
Sometime after the fireworks during the Montauk Fall Festival on Saturday, a lantern got caught in the power lines on Old Montauk Highway and burned up. "Fingers crossed, it didn't hurt the insulation," Browne said.
One also landed on the roof of the Albatross Motel in Montauk this summer, causing a small fire that was quickly extinguished. "
"You let it go, where's it coming down?," he said, adding that it was especially troublesome during dry weather, he said.
While the lanterns themselves are legal, letting them go while the candle is lit is prohibited under New York State Fire Code, Browne said. "They meet the definition of a recreational fire under the fire go. The minute you let go of it it becomes an unattended recreational fire, prohibited by state fire code," he said.
Enforcement is difficult. "We have to catch them doing it," he said.
In other parts of the country and the world, sky lanterns have been banned in different forms. Deborah Klughers, an East Hampton Town Trustee who spoke to the town board about the issue during its meeting on Tuesday, said that in Austria it is illegal to produce, sell or distribute them.
Lanterns starting fires aren't the only cause for concern. Those that are set off over the water are often mistaken for distress flares. "That's another danger — putting people out there on the roads, or in this case the water, unnecessarily," Browne said.
He distributed information to businesses this summer warning of the dangers.
Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said that Montauk seems to have received the brunt of dealing with the problem and that he was expecting a letter from Montauk Fire Department Chief Richard Schoen asking the board to ban the sale.
Schoen brought the problem to the East Hampton Town Chiefs' Association, according to Ben Miller, the president of the organization. He said no formal motion was made the issue, but that the association likely would support such a request.
"They're really lovely to watch float around," said Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, "But, it's a concern."