Senator Russ Karpisek aims to ban floating paper lanterns

Attendees release paper lanterns among a group of approximately 100 gathered in vigil for victims of the Sandy Hook School shooting in Newtown, Conn., at Memorial Park in Omaha on Dec. 16.

LINCOLN — Brandon Morrison sees floating lanterns as more than a pretty sight on a clear night.

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the Omahan organized a lantern launch in Omaha's Memorial Park to honor the 27 victims.

“When I looked up and saw those lanterns, it reminded me of those kids running up into the sky with God sitting there waiting for them,” Morrison said.

But a new bill introduced by State Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber would make the sale and use of floating lanterns illegal in Nebraska.

The lanterns are made of flame-retardant paper that is inflated by hot air from an open flame at its base. After the paper part of the lantern fills with air, it floats off into the sky.

The lanterns can be used as symbols at somber occasions such as memorials but also as a way to celebrate at weddings or on the Fourth of July.

Karpisek saw the lanterns as a fire hazard after he woke up on July 5 a few years ago with a burnt-out lantern on his porch. The lanterns are a potential fire hazard, Karpisek said.

“I'm not a fun-hater by any means,” Karpisek said. “But I think they're very dangerous and we need to have a discussion.”

Last year, Karpisek introduced a similar bill to ban lanterns in Nebraska, but it stalled. Karpisek said he thought it was important to bring the bill back, this time with support from the City of Lincoln and others. That bill is what LB 472 is based on, Karpisek said.

Originally, Karpisek introduced the bill because he was worried about the lanterns coming down in a dry wheat field in his district and starting a fire. But since he has introduced the bill, he also has become concerned about their dangers in cities.

“An urban setting is almost more scary to me, with more trees, more houses, bigger buildings, steeples, all those sort of things,” he said.

The City of Lincoln sent a letter in support of a ban on floating lanterns because of those risks, said city legislative liaison Jeff Kirkpatrick.

“There's great concerns that they could start a fire,” Kirkpatrick said. “We had several residents tell us that they found these things in their yards.”

Seward banned the floating lanterns in August.

The Seward City Council saw the lanterns as a threat to public safety and a fire hazard. Council members voted unanimously to get rid of the lanterns after former Seward City Councilman Mark Eilers proposed a ban.

“It's like lighting a big piece of trash on fire, having it fly through the sky and land on your neighbor's land,” Eilers said. Banning them, he said, “seemed like common sense.”

The Nebraska State Fire Marshal's Office has investigated one fire caused by floating lanterns in Beatrice, according to Regina Shields, the fire marshal's legal counsel. The lanterns may have caused other fires, but none was reported to the fire marshal.

The Fire Marshal's Office doesn't have a stance on the issue, Shields said. She encourages people to follow the instructions on the floating lanterns before use.

Lanterns are a popular item for Nebraska retailers. Wild Willy's Fireworks in Springfield keeps 10,000 in stock year-round, president Dan Williams said.

With proper education, he said, the lanterns are safe in the hands of people who want to enjoy a quiet alternative to fireworks.

“They're stone-cold when they hit the ground,” Williams said.

Nebraska wouldn't be the first state to ban floating lanterns. Hawaii already has a law that bans “aerial luminaries.” The maximum penalty for possessing a floating lantern in Hawaii is a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Under LB 472, the penalty for selling or launching a floating lantern would be a maximum $100 fine.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9580,

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