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Fire officials fret over new sky lanterns

By Gordon Pang and Leila Fujimori

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:52 a.m. HST, Dec 31, 2010


Fire departments on three islands are warning residents against a new type of novelty pyrotechnic in what might be the most eruptive New Year's Eve celebration in years as Oahu faces a looming ban on fireworks.

At the very least, celebrants are urged to use extreme caution with the new item, known generically as sky lanterns and by several product names, including Hawaii Lanterns and Flying Luminaries.

The lanterns rise when a flame is lit and can reach altitudes of 1,000 feet but are at the mercy of the wind. Fire officials fear they could land anywhere — in trees, on houses or in power lines.

But the market for the lanterns is minuscule compared with other novelty items, with sales fueled by the impending ban, which kicks in Sunday.

Firecrackers are not covered by the ban, but are covered by permits. The city issued 10,008 permits this holiday season, a four-year high. The $25 permit allows a permit-holder to purchase 5,000 firecrackers.

The Kauai County Fire Department urged caution with the sky lanterns in a release yesterday, joining the Hawaii County in a warning earlier this week.

The Honolulu Fire Department is researching whether any laws govern them. Seelig said the department did not even know about the products until they went on sale Monday.

"There's not enough time for us to say, 'You can't sell this,' or 'Please don't sell this,' but we're going to ask the consumers to please not use them ... until we can determine whether these things are safe enough to use on our island," he said.

"They have a pretty significant risk to them because it's an open flame, and once it's lit and the balloon starts rising, there's no controlling where it's going to go or where it's going to come down," Seelig said.

THOSE SELLING the lanterns insist they are safe, but fire officials said they are worried about a flame-lit lantern that can travel for miles.

NEW YEAR'S EVE SPECIAL SHOWS

Professional fireworks displays to be staged at midnight tonight:
» Waikiki, 1,500 feet offshore Halekulani hotel
» Aloha Tower Marketplace
» Ihilani Resort & Spa, Ko Olina

 

COUNTING PERMITS

Firecracker permits issued on Oahu:
2010: 10,008
2009: 8,055
2008: 6,924
2007: 9,223
2006: 10,980
» Each $25 permit allows the bearer to buy 5,000 individual firecrackers.

Source: Honolulu Fire Department

 

FIREWORKS RULES, TIPS

Professional fireworks displays to be staged at midnight tonight:
» People may set off fireworks for four hours from 9 p.m. today.
» Use or possession of aerial fireworks is prohibited without a permit.
» It is illegal to set off fireworks near a health care or animal-care facility, school, place of worship, park, cane field or public way.
» People may not throw lit fireworks from a moving vehicle.
» Marine flares should not be set off except in a boating emergency, the Coast Guard warns.

Source: Honolulu Fire Department, Coast Guard

The lantern itself is made from biodegradable, fire-retardant paper that scorches but does not burst into flames. A combustible "fuel pad" at the base of the lantern is lit and causes the lantern to inflate and float.

Larry Lomaz, chief executive of Pacific Fireworks, said the fire in the lantern goes out a minute to 90 seconds later.

"When these things reach an altitude, they go out," he said.

The item is as safe as any other product if used properly, he said. If instructions are followed, they are safer than sparklers, he added.

The instructions also say to keep a fire extinguisher nearby and to use them only in calm and windless weather. While the label also says "wind speed must be less than 5 miles per hour," Lomaz said they have been tested as safe in 15 and even 20 mph winds.

Seeling said he is skeptical consumers will follow the 5 mph directions.

"It's very infrequent that we have days like that over here."

Lomaz disagreed.

"You've got no winds on New Year's Eve here," he said. "That's why you've got a smoke problem. If it's real windy, I don't recommend lighting them."

The National Weather Service is forecasting easterly winds of 6 to 8 mph for tonight.

Pacific Fireworks is selling the lantern for $12.77 each with a buy-two, get-one-free special. The new product is "our best seller this year," Lomaz said.

Lomaz has sold about 4,000 so far, with 2,000 left.

"We've sold these on the mainland for five years, and we've never had one problem of a fire or any anything else with this device," Lomaz said. If it were a fire hazard, he said, "the Consumer Fire Safety Commission would be all over this."

Lomaz said Hawaii County, the first local municipality to issue a public warning about the item, seized about 50 cases, about 1,200 lanterns, but then promised to pay him for the product.

MEANWHILE YESTERDAY, customers flocked to stores and fireworks stands that have popped up everywhere.

Patrick Weisbarth said he and his wife were spending more than $1,000 for fireworks.

"I want the kids to experience it before the ban goes into effect," he said as he loaded up his wagon last night with $322 in novelty items, including Magic Whips and giant silver Bullets at the Don Quijote Kaheka store.

"I grew up being able to pop a lot of fireworks," said Eva Weisbarth. "Being this is the last year, we made multiple stops." Those included Longs Drugs and fireworks stands.

At Don Quijote stores, fireworks sales were brisk, and many opted for the paperless firecrackers, which do not require permits.

Competition was stiff among the fireworks stands. In a small area in Waimalu, there were at least four stands within walking distance, with steady streams of customers.






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