SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah may soon join a growing list of states and counties in banning sky lanterns.
Utah state fire Marshal Coy Porter says the lanterns are a fire hazard. If they are ripped even slightly, they can come crashing down and start a fire. They are also known as Chinese lanterns. Last year, a sky lantern started a 1-acre wildfire in southern Utah near St. George, Porter said.
"Once you let it go, there is no controlling where it goes and where it comes down," Porter said.
Fire chiefs around the country have issued warnings about the danger of the lanterns. It's illegal to launch sky lanterns in some states and counties, such as Hawaii and Kittitas County, Wash.
The proposed Utah ban is part of a revised fire code included in a bill that will be introduced in the next session of the state legislature, which begins Monday. The bill will be sponsored by Rep. James Dunnigan, a Republican.
Porter said the lanterns are often set off by the hundreds at weddings and funerals. The paper lanterns are usually made from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame and have a candle or small fuel cell. Like a hot air balloon, they float away into the sky after they are ignited and fall when the flame goes out.
The lanterns are used in central and eastern China on 'Lantern Day,' which is 15 days after the Chinese New Year, said Maggie Wu, a member of the Utah Chinese New Year celebration committee. But, in Salt Lake City, the lanterns aren't used, said Wu, who has lived in Utah for 23 years.
Wu, who lives near the mountains, understands the fire danger and doesn't have a problem with the potential ban. Depending on where they're ignited, there could certainly be a fire danger, she said.
The lanterns are often used in Thailand and southeastern Asian cultures but usually near oceans or rivers so they can land in water, said Steven Ha, a member of the state of Utah's multicultural commission and longtime leader in the Asian community. They sometimes put dozens of them in a small boat and send them down the river as part of a spiritual ceremony, he said.
Ha doesn't oppose the proposed ban in Utah. Considering the cost of fighting wildfires, it's a good idea to prohibit them.
"We should respect the policies that should be put in place to eliminate any hardship to state budgets to fight these fires," Ha said.
One of the driving forces behind the increased popularity of the lanterns is a scene from the Disney movie, "Tangled," in which hundreds of lanterns are released over water. One group is planning on sending 200 sky lanterns into the sky above Utah Lake near Provo to celebrate the Chinese New Year in February, KSL-TV reported. But as Porter points out, real life and movies are quite different.
"Unlike the movie, you are not surrounded by water on all sides of the castle," Porter said.
Coming off a particularly bad wildfire season in Utah, Porter said he wants to be proactive and decrease possibilities for more fires.
"It's dramatic, it's really nice," Porter said, "but we prefer they do helium balloons or something else."