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Regulating Sky Lanterns

Note: This blog post was first published in June 2017 but has since been updated.

Washington State is known for its rainfall but anyone who has lived here will attest to the amazing summers the state experiences. With another beautiful Washington summer ramping up, it is important to remember the dangers of wildfires during dry times and to ensure local governments are notifying Washington citizens of potential fire hazards. 

A sky lantern is small hot-air balloon made of paper, with an opening at the bottom where a fire is suspended. Between the Fourth of July, summer weddings, and other celebrations, sky lanterns are becoming an increasingly popular way to celebrate on summer nights, but they may not be as innocent as they seem.

This blog post will explore concerns regarding sky lanterns and how these items 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 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.

For years the National Association of Fire Marshals have been raising awareness of the dangers sky lanterns pose, even calling for a nationwide ban in 2013.  Currently, it is estimated that at least 30 States have banned sky lanterns and floating luminaria. The miniature hot-air balloons may seem innocent and fun, but the damage they can cause is no joke. In addition to fire hazards sky lanterns pose, remnants of crashed lanterns show up as litter on the landscape as the balloon, wires, and bags often do not decompose.

Are Sky Lanterns Regulated in Washington?

There is a lot of misinformation around sky lanterns that suggests these items are not regulated in Washington and encourages people to use them. However, 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 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. 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, including the following jurisdictions:

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? Comments?

If you have questions about this topic or other local government issues, please use the online Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have questions or comments about this blog post, please email the MRSC Insight Editors.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Davis Abbott

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.