The state’s top fire official is exploring whether the use of popular floating paper luminaries falls under a Massachusetts law banning fireworks and, if it doesn’t, whether it should.
Fire Marshal Stephen Coan’s move follows a Christmas incident in Hanover in which 40 flaming paper sky lanterns, launched by a resident at a family party, floated above trees and over the town line into a Norwell neighborhood, sparking panic in drivers and others who noticed them in the night sky.
“I have asked my legal staff to take a review of the general law and render an opinion,’’ Coan said. “I do consider them a hazard.’’
Coan initiated the query into the legalities of the legislation after Hanover Fire Chief Jeff Blanchard requested a statewide ban. Coan said releasing an active flame into the air that is so subjective to wind currents and changing conditions could result in property damage and personal injury. While a fire ignited by such lanterns might not be so likely in winter conditions with a light snow cover, summer drought conditions are entirely different, several fire officials say.
Coan said after he receives the legal opinion, he will reach out to fire officials around the country to assess any trends that may exist to ban sky lanterns. Then he’ll continue the discussion with local chiefs about how the Massachusetts fire service wants to handle the matter and where it can go, by law. There is no projected time frame for a decision.
“I do not have the broad authority to outright prohibit them’’ because they are not considered pyrotechnics, added Coan, who did send a memo to fire chiefs statewide in May, giving them the option to individually ban the mini hot-air balloons locally.
Blanchard has done just that in Hanover, as have Somerville officials following similar incidents in that community. Now Coan says he’s taking a closer look.
‘I don’t know how you make fire safe, especially when you light them and let them go.’Jeff Blanchard, Hanover fire chief
In Hanover, Blanchard said, 911 calls started pouring in on Christmas night about fire in the sky, and at one point officials weren’t sure whether the lanterns were responsible for a fire that destroyed a $1.5 million home in Norwell. It was later determined there was no link between the lanterns and the house fire, Norwell Fire Chief Andrew Reardon said.
“People who manufacture sky lanterns would like you to believe they are safe, but they are flammable,’’ Blanchard said recently. “I don’t know how you make fire safe, especially when you light them and let them go. They have to come down somewhere.’’
Some countries, including Australia, Germany, and Spain, have banned the free-floating devices, as has the state of Tennessee. Hawaii is in the process of instituting a similar ban, officials said.
In Massachusetts, the issue is whether the wording of the state law that prohibits pyrotechnics extends to the balloons, which have soared in popularity since their appearance in movies such as Disney’s “Tangled’’ and “The Hangover Part II.’’
That the devices, also known as sky candles and wish lanterns, are sometimes deployed in religious ceremonies must also be taken into account, Coan said.
The lanterns are often constructed of oiled rice paper on a light wood frame and have a small, square, flammable fuel cell that is lighted. Then when the device fills with heat, it begins to glow and rises slowly into the air until it floats away.
In New Hampshire, where fireworks are legal, store owners still have reservations about sky lanterns.
“As big as my store is, I don’t sell them,’’ said Christina Katsikas, owner of Hooksett Fireworks Inc., a 7,500-square-foot warehouse in Hooksett, N.H.
Katsikas said she isn’t sure her product liability insurance would cover her if sky lanterns were to start a fire in the heavily wooded state because they are not officially considered fireworks.
“Besides that, our fire marshals definitely don’t like them, so I have avoided the urge to start selling them,’’ she said.
Fire chiefs in a number of towns south of Boston expressed similar concerns about the sky lanterns.
Pembroke Fire Chief James Neenan said he’ll ask the town’s attorney to explore whether a local bylaw to ban the use of them can be enacted. No one wants a flaming lantern to drop onto a rooftop and ignite a home or business, he and other fire chiefs said.
“There is no way, in my mind, they can be considered anything but dangerous,’’ Neenan said. “You don’t whistle and say ‘come back here’ like it’s your puppy.’’
“It baffles my mind how this is considered entertainment,’’ said Norwell’s Reardon. “People need to put two and two together and say, ‘It sounds like a good idea, but what are the implications to the greater good?’ ’’
Bridgewater Fire Chief George W. Rogers Jr. said the town hasn’t had any incidents with sky lanterns, nor has he taken any action at this time.
Mattapoisett Fire Chief Andrew Murray said he hasn’t taken action to ban sky lanterns in his town, either, but he may consider it as more information becomes available.
“As far as my personal thoughts go, I understand that they may be aesthetically appealing,’’ he said. “However, safety must come first.’’
Stoughton Fire Chief Mark Dolloff said conversations with other top fire officials around the state have shown that there is great concern about the sky lanterns even though not many of them have experienced problems.
But basic human nature is predictable: “Common sense is not so common,’’ Dolloff said.Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.