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Regulating Sky Lanterns

June 6, 2017 by Davis Abbott
Category: Licensing and Regulation

Regulating Sky Lanterns

Washington State is known for its rainfall, but anyone who has lived here can tell you the amazing summers are why you stay. With another beautiful Washington summer ramping up, it is important to remember the dangers of wildfires during dry times, and ensure local governments are notifying Washington citizens of the fire hazard that sky lanterns can pose. 

Between the Fourth of July, summer weddings, and other celebrations, sky lanterns are becoming an increasingly popular way to celebrate on summer nights. But sky lanterns may not be as innocent as they seem. This blog post will explore how sky lanterns are regulated in Washington State.

Why Regulate Sky Lanterns?

In 2013, a 36-year old man in Selah, Washington was hoping to enjoy the beauty of launching a candle powered sky lantern and watching it ascend to the heavens, but his lantern did not fly as high as he had hoped and crash landed on a hillside, inadvertently setting fire to 500 acres of Yakima County. The National Association of Fire Marshalls have been raising awareness of the dangers sky lanterns pose for years, and they are still pushing for a nationwide ban. Currently, it is estimated that at least 29 States have banned sky lanterns and floating luminarias. The miniature hot-air balloons may seem innocent and fun, but the damage they can cause is no joke. In addition to fire hazards, the remnants of the balloon can leave wires and bags as litter that is left to sit out in nature.

Are Sky Lanterns Regulated in Washington?

There is a lot of misinformation around these mini air balloons that says sky lanterns are not regulated in Washington and encourages people to use them. But the State of Washington has codified laws regulating sky lantern use.

Pursuant to RCW 19.27.031 and WAC 51-54A-003, the 2015 International Fire Code (IFC), with some small modifications, is in effect in all counties and cities in Washington State. Relevant here, is section 308.1.6.3, which states that "[a] person shall not release or cause to be released an untethered sky lantern." The IFC defines "person" broadly to include both individuals as well as business entities. Based on these authorities, it appears that it is generally prohibited under state law to release or cause to be released an untethered sky lantern in Washington State.

In addition, RCW 76.04.455 states that during the “closed season,” which lasts from April 15–October 15, it is unlawful to release a sky lantern “on or over any forest, brush, range, or grain areas.” The same RCW also states that outside of the closed season, it is unlawful to release a sky lantern “on or over any forest, brush, range, or grain areas” unless the person releasing the lantern has either: (1) lawful possession and control of the land in question; or (2) has prior written permission to release the sky lantern from the person who owns the land in question.

These laws can be confusing, and it may be difficult to enforce violations. For example, deciding whether a sky lantern was released “on or over a forest, brush, range or grain area” could become very tedious and is open to different interpretations, which is why some local governments have adopted their own sky lantern regulations. Here are some sample local regulations:

Are your Residents Adequately Informed?

Local governments have the highest interaction with their constituents and are in the best position to notify them of fire dangers. Local governments can use notices like fire danger rating signs to inform citizens if the risk of wildfires is especially high during the dry season. The National Wildlife Coordinating Group's Wildfire Prevention Sign and Poster Guide provides some helpful tips on where to place signs and how to arrange them for maximum effectiveness. For instance, it advises local governments posting fire danger signs to avoid “sign clutter” by posting too many signs close together, causing people to subconsciously dismiss the signs because it’s too much information at once. The guide also recommends avoiding putting the notices on places like trees or fence posts, as such locations tend to diminish the importance of the notice in a person’s mind compared to a notice posted on an actual message board.

Questions or comments on this information? Just Ask MRSC!

About Davis Abbott

Davis interned at MRSC in early 2017 before graduating from the Seattle University School of Law. He authored this article during his internship.

During law school he focused on low-income legal aid and local government work. In addition to MRSC, Davis interned at the Northwest Justice Project’s Housing Unit, Seattle University’s Moderate Means Program, the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, and the Deputy Mayor for Education in Washington DC. A Pacific Northwest native, Davis earned a Bachelor’s in History and Political Science from Seattle Pacific University prior to entering law school.



"Molly - Thank you for your comment. We really appreciate it. We've updated the blog post to include reference to the International Fire Code."

Robert Sepler on Jun 8, 2017 5:10 PM

"When I ran this by our Building Official/Fire Marshal, he explained that the currently adopted State Fire Code states: 308.1.6.3 Sky lanterns. A person shall not release or cause to be released an untethered sky lantern."

Molly Towslee on Jun 7, 2017 2:52 PM

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