A brush fire that blackened the hills above Pirate’s Cove last summer provided the motivation for Pismo Beach to outlaw a harmful invasive.
Chinese sky lanterns—small hot-air kites powered by candle heat—run as little as $1 apiece when you get them by Internet bulk order. The one that crashed below Ontario Ridge on July 30, 2012, cost the public more than $10,000 in firefighting expenses and threatened a radio tower.
A proposed Pismo ordinance to ban the launching of sky lanterns—also known as Kongming lanterns—passed a first reading of the City Council by a 4-0 vote on June 4. Fire Chief Paul Lee argued that the lanterns mix poorly with the Central Coast’s powerful winds and dry, sometimes oily, vegetation.
“They are mesmerizing to watch go across the sky. Unfortunately, in this community, they are extremely dangerous,” Lee said. “They are extremely popular, and they are easy to get hold of.”
The City Council could enact the ordinance banning sky lantern use as soon as June 18. A similar, but stricter, San Luis Obispo County ordinance goes into effect on June 6. It will make lantern launchers guilty of a misdemeanor and liable for the resulting firefighting costs.
“This whole thing seems like arson to me,” Councilmember Erik Howell commented.
In addition to Internet distributors, some local merchants reportedly sell sky lanterns, though none appeared on June 4 to defend local use of the product.
The history of sky lanterns traces back to the Three Kingdoms period in China 1,800 years ago. According to one disputed account, military forces used them to communicate on the battlefield.
Modern sky lanterns play a role in the festival rituals of several cultures. They make for a spectral sight when deployed in large numbers on a still night.
Both the enacted SLO County and proposed Pismo Beach ordinances contain an exemption for sky lanterns launched as part of a cultural ritual.