Having been to many music festivals in the past few years, I have seen the growth of music festivals, the broadening of the crowd and lineups, as well as a community that is vibrant, positive and open to all. Music festivals are one of the great American cultural events and their continued development is a positive for local communities nationwide. However, there is a growing trend that is both disturbing and dangerous to both festival attendees and those in the local communities nearby. Sky Lanterns, also known as Chinese Lanterns, are a dangerous new trend at festivals that have the high potential to create uncontrollable fires both at a festival and miles away. After mentioning my concern in festival reviews over the past two years, where I witnessed the dangerous nature of Sky Lanterns, I attended StrangeCreek Music and Arts Festival in Greenfield, Mass over Memorial Day weekend where I saw these lanterns sent up in the air without concern for the risk or impact involved. In order to educate the festival-going populace, a few conversations were had with friends and acquaintances that led to this article.
First of all, what are Sky Lanterns? They are purchased completely flat and then expand to create a three foot tall cylindrical shape with a cardboard platform, roughly the size of a small pizza box. Once expanded, the wick is attached to the bottom of the paper lantern and lit on fire. Aside from not burning the paper, the lantern is held up and allows the flame to heat the air, thus rising up and floating away.
But wait, aren’t open fires banned at festivals? Indeed nearly all festivals ban open fires, with only a select few having a bonfire that is far away from spreading the fire to nearby trees and brush, and under the watchful eye of an attendant staff member. A sky lantern IS an open fire and if you can’t burn citronella candles, votives or campfires at a festival, common sense dictates that these should not be allowed, as it is an uncontained fire.
Yes, it is a bit appalling that folks who set them up and watch the fire grow will laugh and ogle. There’s little you can do here, but at the least, learn from a mistake, like these folks.
So why do people set them up? The number one reason given to me by multiple people at multiple festivals over the past few years: it looks cool. That’s all it takes, for something to look cool, you just have to ignore what happens after it is released. When I ask these folks during setup and take off, they are focused and want to make sure the wick is attached properly, and they happily share that it looks cool. Over three years and more than a dozen festivals, it’s still the only answer I have received.
You may ask yourself, is this actually a problem? Yes, very much so and a proactive community effort can stem this from becoming a tragic problem. Some may not notice this as an issue because they do not go to festivals or may not see one while at a festival. The presence of a sky lantern at a festival may be to add to the vibe of the festival but facts are facts: this is a flaming surface being sent up into the skies with no way to control its direction. Think of a flaming, stringless kite that doesn’t burn out for 20 minutes or so, and you get the idea.
I have seen these lanterns crash down, flame lit, causing damage. Here are a few stories from fans who have witnessed them in recent years:
Superball, July 2011
A first person account from Andy Hill: “At first I thought the sky lanterns were cool. I had seen them at a bunch of shows leading up to Phish’s Superball at Watkins Glen Speedway and they were set off without incident to my knowledge. So I didn’t give them much thought beyond that. They definitely look awesome when done in a proper and safe manner. But my opinion of them changed pretty quickly after Superball. I was in the back of the concert field, slightly Fish side enjoying the show. More than not, my eyes are closed when getting down at a Phish show, as was the case this time. Eventually I started hearing a commotion from the people surrounding me and as I opened my eyes and looked to see what the ruckus was about and out of the corner of my eye I saw a bright light coming towards me. Before I realized what it was it hit me it was gone. A sky lantern had been let go prematurely and did not have enough lift to fly. Instead it listed towards me and clipped my head and continued on into the crowd, staying dangerously low and leaving me with the smell of burnt hair…MY BURNT HAIR!!! Luckily, I was not hurt but it was far too close for comfort. I agree that under controlled circumstances, sky lanterns are pretty harmless and are pretty amazing to watch. But in a concert setting where there are so many variables that could allow a dangerous outcome, the risk is certainly not worth the reward.”
StrangeCreek, May 2012
This past weekend at the StrangeCreek Music and Arts Festival, near the main stage, a few fans were setting the sky lanterns up in the evening and night. Lowell Wurster, working festival staff recalls “I saw three sky lanterns get set off this weekend and one of them fell burning in the woods, which had to be extinguished. It’s the same reason why most festivals don’t allow fires.” There were at least a dozen set off Saturday and Sunday night at StrangeCreek, all because “it looks cool.” (This is an actual quote). Later reports indicate that these sky lanterns were landing in a cow pasture up the road and scaring the cows. It’s a bad idea at a venue such as Camp Kee-wa-nee due to the fact that fans are living in the forest for three or four days where there is a lot of material that could combust with ease.
Liberate, August 2011
Taking an early morning walk at Liberate Music Festival, near St. Albans, Vermont, I found some paths behind the stage that led into the woods. I got about ¼ of a mile down a trail and I saw something unique – a bush that was burnt out and had the shell and wires of a sky lantern. I looked around and found little around the bush that caught fire as a result, thankfully. It was a case of pure luck that this bush didn’t ignite the woods around bush. I brought the shell to the festival producer and his jaw dropped. Needless to say, no lanterns were set off that night. Proof again that these lanterns do not burn out and they are a fire hazard.
moe.down, September 2010
Standing to the left of the soundboard on Saturday night of moe.down, I saw some people setting these off from the top of the hill near ‘Gelston Castle’. Some took off over the trees into the Mohawk Valley but one took a dive from a windgust and dove directly into the tapers section right in front of the soundboard. This lantern came in with speed and wind behind it and dove direct into the taper pole, knocking a couple over before trailing off into the rest of the crowd, then taking off again! Of course, more lanterns followed after, and on Sunday night too.
Consider this point from frequent festival-goer Dan Weathers: “Everyone probably never thought their house would flood because who would think a hurricane would affect places like Vermont and New Jersey because there is a pretty small risk of that happening. Then we get a hurricane and no one is prepared and we have a catastrophe and major problem. And people freak out and say how could we not be prepared? Everyone says it’s minor and there is very little risk but guess what, that risk can be devastating. So while they are kind of cool, who wants to be that douche that starts a major fire and causes major destruction?”
In the conversations I have had this week, it was suggested that these are never seen at concerts. This is true because there is far more security to get into a concert so it would be difficult to find these in regular use at amphitheaters. At music festivals there is less security (compared to concerts, although the search can be more stringent) but there is also more freedom at a festival, one that is taken advantage of by some.
Tents, brush, trees, dry areas and drought-prone regions all can be set ablaze quickly. Ever seen a tent go up in flames? Nylon tents (most of the ones sold today) will burst into flames very fast, leaving only poles behind. I witnessed this in Boy Scouts at a demonstration of tent safety where we were shown the result of a single flame near a tent. It took only a 20 seconds before the tent was engulfed in flames. Imagine someone is in that tent and a sky lantern comes crashing down. A friend made a valid point – people don’t think that something of beauty can be dangerous and they do not fully understand and respect fire in all its forms. Flying fire in an arid environment can devastate.
I have always wondered if there was a religious nature to these lanterns, or at least a spiritual one. While this has never been confirmed from first person interviews, it seems to still be a possibility. Festivals are spiritual events for some, so adding to the spirit of the festival is a natural next step. However, where music festivals are bigger and grander than nearly all in America, Britain has bigger problems, where family houses have burned down as a result of these sky lanterns. Even in Vietnam, an area of the world where sky lanterns are set into the air or afloat on the ocean have banned these aerial arson machines after 20 forest fires were caused from their uncontrollable nature.
Should we await a tragedy like these before acting? Certainly not. A proactive community effort needs to be in place at all festivals, including notifications of this no-no sent out in advance, including the usual suspects: glass, weapons, nitrous, fireworks, open fires and now, sky lanterns. Penalties are the same – confiscation in the interest of the public good.
When a sky lantern gets trapped in a tree and sets it on fire, how will a wooded festival be able to put the flame out, get people away and prevent the fire from spreading? That festival would not be back the next year and the result would affect all festivals nationwide. The media feeds on stories of festivals that portray them in a negative light. What better than a random flaming drones to bring down all we enjoy about festivals?
There are proper places for these lanterns, although they are limited. One idea presented in discussions was to set them off over water, preferably the ocean where it can float out to sea with a good wind behind it. I would argue that this is acceptable and the risk is minimal at best, provided the winds take sky lantern out to sea. Few festivals are located right on the water, so for the most part, leaving these behind and not using them is the best recourse for this situation.
Education of this matter is also part of a proactive effort we can all take part in. Sharing this piece will hopefully wake people up and prevent them from setting them off, because its only a matter of time before a tragic story like the one in Britain is heard in the news and online in America.
In short, sky lanterns are not needed, provide little benefit and are dangerous to all at a festival. Unless you are on the ocean or far away from an area that may be flammable, do not use sky lanterns. They are a waste and danger to us all.
Please note, I DO encourage those who enjoy sky lanterns to step forward and share the benefits they have on a festival and the area around the festival. I have asked many but there is always more to this story.
And yes, glowsticks are also bad too for the environment in the longterm because they do not biodegrade. Lights and fires are pretty, but let’s use our heads folks.