The rice paper and bamboo lights are known as Kongming lanterns in China. The English refer to them as Chinese lanterns. Canadians have dubbed them high-flying fireworks.
In Maryland, they're called "a serious threat to fire and life safety."
Last week, the office of the state fire marshal reminded residents that use of the "sky lanterns" is prohibited in Maryland.
Fire Marshal William Barnard said in a statement that the luminaires — which in recent years have become a popular way to celebrate weddings and to mark vigils — can be unpredictable and hard to control, possibly resulting in "uncontrolled fire."
The lanterns have seen an uptick in popularity thanks to movies and commercials that use the cylindrical paper lights.
They were first constructed in Asia as a practical solution for protecting open flames but became a medium for art and eventually the showcase for various festivals in China and Japan where thousands of the disposable lights are released into the night sky.
The lanterns are released in a group, which means dozens or even hundreds float into the sky and land in random places.
"Once the lantern reaches the air currents, it's completely up to nature as to how long it stays aloft," Deputy State Fire Marshal Bruce Bouch said. "They can burn for three or four minutes, depending on the air current and how fast it's flowing and also the temperature itself, whether it goes even higher or stays lower. It's going to land somewhere."
The lanterns come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but a popular version in the United States is typically made of oiled rice paper wrapped around a thin frame. A lighted candle or fuel cell at the base of the lantern heats the air trapped within the paper lantern, causing it to rise into the sky.
"There's always the potential of what's going to happen after these beautiful items are released," Mr. Bouch said. "Who's left with cleaning up, what is in danger when they come back down, and then, who's going to accept responsibility?"
In July 2011, 800 acres of land in Myrtle Beach, S.C., burned when a lit lantern landed, and a farm home with a family inside also burned in England in 2011 when a lantern landed on its wooden rafters.
Neighbors of the popular Bonnaroo music festival, held in Manchester, Tenn., have been complaining for years that the remains of charred lanterns end up in their yards, despite the show's rules against open flames.
Even Sanya, the city in China where paper lanterns were first created, put a stop to lantern lighting, after flights at a nearby airport were delayed because too many lanterns were hovering in the sky during a festival.
Mr. Bouch said he did not know of any fires in Maryland that have been directly linked to the lanterns, but the decision to highlight by name the lanterns on the list of illegal fireworks was done to avoid any confusion. Highlighting the lanterns was done as part of the adoption of new amendments to the Maryland fire code, which was approved Jan. 1.
Maryland isn't the first state to prohibit use of the paper lanterns. Last February, South Carolina banned the "wish lanterns" because they posed "serious fire and safety hazards." Hawaii also banned the lanterns last year, as did the city of Mukilteo, Wash., for similar reasons.
Virginia prohibits releasing the paper lanterns into the air, Virginia Department of Fire Programs spokesman Mark Buff said. However, "constantly attended" votives are permitted. An example of this is the white paper bags weighted down with sand and tea lights that line the courses of events such as the American Cancer Society-sponsored Relay for Life, or perhaps a home driveway display during the winter holidays.
Mr. Buff said local governments have the option of amending the fire code "to make it even more restrictive, meaning some localities may have total bans on these devices, even if they are constantly attended."
David Craig, of Sky Lanterns USA in Winchester, Va., said he's seen an uptick in the paper lantern business, but "we like to caution our customers that, first off, they have to obey the laws of their locality or state.
"With anything that has an open, exposed flame you're going to have to be careful and use good common sense," he added.
Mr. Craig advised that people who want to use the lanterns should keep a bucket of water nearby and never light them when there's a noticeable wind.
"The intent for the sky lantern is for it to fly and the flame extinguishes itself," Mr. Craig said. "But like most products that have risks associated with it, it's not the product, it's the use."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.