Politics & Government

Flying fire balloons draw concern, talk of ban at Kansas Capitol

A group of friends lift off an aerial lantern on July 4, 2013. (July 4, 2013)
A group of friends lift off an aerial lantern on July 4, 2013. (July 4, 2013) The Wichita Eagle

There’s a new threat in the skies over Kansas.




And the state Legislature is right on top of it.

Also known as Kongming or Chinese lanterns, sky candles and fire balloons, unmanned aerial luminaries are essentially miniature hot-air balloons, made of lightweight rice paper and bamboo frames and kept aloft by a burning fuel cell.

They are popular on the Fourth of July and other fireworks-related holidays, and everybody acknowledges the lighted balloons are beautiful as they drift through the night sky.

But they go a mile high, and Kansas winds carry them miles from their launch point. And sometimes they come down before the fire source goes out, said Winfield Fire Marshal Dennis Darby, who testified in favor of banning the balloons at a legislative hearing Tuesday.

“This action can result in combustibles at the landing site becoming engulfed with flames,” Darby testified. “As a direct result, the potential for uncontrolled fire involving structures or vegetation poses a serious threat to life and property.”

Darby said the luminaries are particularly popular at Winfield’s annual Walnut Valley Music Festival – and the Fire Department has had to scramble several times over the years to put out the random grass, brush and hay fires they cause.

Once, one landed on the roof of the city power plant. Although it didn’t ignite anything, it was a pain to get it down, he said.

“They don’t always come down and light something on fire, but the threat is always there,” he said.

Former House Speaker Doug Mays testified that he was worried about a fleet of UALs he saw from his Topeka porch. They were floating serenely out into the Flint Hills, which he described as “a tinderbox waiting to happen.”

“I looked at that and I told my wife – she laughed when I said this as an ex-legislator – I said there ought to be a law,” he said.

House Bill 2240 would make it unlawful to “ignite, fire or otherwise use an unmanned aerial luminary.” Doing so would be punishable by a fine not to exceed $2,500.

No one testified against the bill, but the Kansas Fireworks Association offered neutral testimony, mainly to get on record that the UALs are primarily sold by big-box retail stores and online, not by licensed fireworks stands.

Association lobbyist Philip Bradley also urged the committee to proceed cautiously and act only on actual evidence that UALs cause fires.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center and chairman of the House Local Government Committee, said he plans to bring the bill back for discussion and a committee vote.

“I went from thinking, you know, feeling like this wasn’t necessary, to at least being open-minded,” he said.

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