As majestic and harmless as sky lanterns may seem, they come with the possibility of dangerous consequences. In this Legal with Leah, learn about the rules that come with setting off sky lanterns and the options landowners have if damage is caused by them.
Listen to Legal with Leah, a podcast featuring Ohio Farm Bureau’s Policy Counsel Leah Curtis discussing topics impacting farmers and landowners.
Ty Higgins: Sky lanterns have been around for centuries. They’re usually part of a celebration, oftentimes mistaken for UFOs. But as majestic and harmless as they may seem, they come with the possibility of unforeseen dangers and rules to help mitigate the problems they could cause. This is Legal with Leah. Along with Ohio Farm Bureau Policy Counsel Leah Curtis, I’m Ty Higgins and Leah, these sky lanterns are becoming more common and popular in rural Ohio, so much so that there are certain steps that need to be taken in order to set them off. We’ll get to that later. But first, explain what these sky lanterns look like and how they work. They’re kind of miniature hot air balloons, so to speak.
Leah Curtis: So they’re usually a paper lantern. It usually has some sort of wick in the middle that you can light. So there is usually an open flame inside of it. I believe, you know, I’m not a physics expert. I went to law school. Not that type of school (laughter). But, I think the flame helps it rise and it flies through the air. Since I think the Disney movie ‘Tangled’ came out, they’ve even become more popular. People like to set them off. So they’re popular for weddings and things like that.
Ty Higgins: They’re amazing to look at. I mean, they float effortlessly across the sky. There are hazards that come along with sky lanterns. What are some of the things that they’re causing havoc because of?
Leah Curtis: First, of course, it is an open flame. And, you know, right now in this year, it’s been really wet, but a lot of times of the year, it’s very dry and also windy. And that can cause, of course, some sort of fire, just a brush or grass. If it would land on a home or a building, that also could be problematic. And then even if the flame goes out before it lands, you then have the trash everywhere. And that trash can 1) just be a pain to clean up, but 2) if livestock would try to eat that or ingest it, that may also make them sick or could probably even kill them. So it is something that can cause a lot of problems for a landowner if it shows up on their property.
Ty Higgins: With all that said, it’s not illegal to light up a lantern and send it on its way, but there are steps that have to be taken in order to do so.
Leah Curtis: So technically, a sky lantern is considered a flame effect for the purposes of the Ohio Fire Code. And so a permit is needed to be able to set those off for any audience. And from what I can tell and from I’ve seen, an audience is basically more than one person. So you have to go through a permit with your local fire department that would include a plan, probably an inspection. You may also need to have somebody from the fire department present when you’re setting them off. So there is kind of a lot that goes into that.
Leah Curtis: And if you are thinking… If you have a venue where you want to set those off or you think you want to send them off for an event, you really should be working with your fire department well in advance to make sure you have the proper permits in place.
Ty Higgins: And just because you have a permit doesn’t mean something bad couldn’t happen on the other end. When you get a permit, does that shield those who set off lanterns from any type of damage should it occur?
Leah Curtis Most likely not. So, of course, there are some criminal issues that could apply. Now, maybe the permit would cover you for some of that. But as far as private damage to a private landowner, that certainly could still be the basis of a lawsuit between that private landowner and whoever set them off for things like trespassing or property damage as well.
Ty Higgins There are civil and criminal penalties that could happen because of sky lanterns?
Leah Curtis: Yes. So, first of all, there is negligently starting a fire. So if a fire would occur from this, you could be found guilty of that. It is a misdemeanor. There also, of course, is the crime of arson, which is recklessly setting a fire and causing fire damage or a risk of physical harm from fire. And that, of course, is also a misdemeanor depending on the value of the property that’s damaged, though, it could be up into a felony. Well, you know, you’re probably not going to see that from a lot of sky lanterns, but it could happen if you had a very windy, dry day. And let’s say a hay field catches on fire or something. That could be not just from a value perspective problematic, but from a danger to life, a problem.
Leah Curtis: So the fire department and the fire marshal are probably going to be looking at what can occur from that to that person who let this off.
Ty Higgins: If I’m a property owner, what options do I have if a sky lantern inadvertently finds its way onto my property?
Leah Curtis: Well, you may want to contact your fire department and they can tell you if there had been any permits. So that may help you find out who had those sky lanterns, because that’s kind of the first problem. If you do know who it is, you may have an action against that person, a lawsuit for trespass. We often think of trespassing as somebody coming on our property. But trespassing actually can be anything coming on your property, too, including trash and debris and that kind of stuff. So you may have a civil claim from that. If there has been any property damage that, of course, can also be involved. You’d want to talk with an attorney about the specific facts and determine if that’s a possibility and if it makes sense given the cost, but certainly you do have some recourse in that vein. You may also want to contact, of course, the authorities, your sheriff, if you see lanterns and you are worried about possible damage or problems. I would call the sheriff and the fire department both if you see them up in the air and you’re concerned about them.
Ty Higgins: You mentioned that permit maybe having some traceability as to where they originated from. But if you don’t get a permit, these things can travel for miles and miles and miles. And God forbid, it does some damage you may never find out where they came from in the first place.
Leah Curtis: Yeah, and that’s the real problem with them, is that they can go so far and it’s not like somebody’s name is written on them, unless maybe it was for a wedding or something, they put someone’s name on them. So that is always going be the struggle. That’s why we want to encourage people who do want to use them, do it the proper way, not just so it can be traced but so it can be safe because we want it to be safe for everybody. You don’t want your celebration ending up causing pain or problems for someone else.
Ty Higgins: Anytime you and I visit, it’s because a member has called and has raised some concerns about a certain issue. So where can our members find resources about sky lanterns in case they find themselves dealing with a situation where a lantern comes down on their own property?
Leah Curtis: Well, certainly we’ll have information from our discussion today on our website. And as always, our members, when they have questions about these issues, should contact their county office. Their county office can get them in touch with our staff here in Columbus, and we can help them with those questions as they come up.
Ty Higgins: Leah Curtis, policy counsel here at Ohio Farm Bureau. This has been Legal with Leah.