Fires are a fact of life in California, but seldom have we seen so many stubborn wildfires burning this early in the season.
While investigators haven’t nailed down the causes of the biggest blazes, statistics give use a clue: According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, 84 percent of all wildfires in the United States are caused by people.
Something as innocuous as heat from car exhaust can ignite a fire under extreme conditions, which makes it all the more frustrating when we hear about fires started by blatantly risky — and stupid — behavior.
A prime example: Saturday night, a couple of sky lanterns started a small fire in Morro Bay.
If you’re wondering, “What in the world is a sky lantern?” we’ll clue you in, courtesy of Wikipedia, which defines it as “a small hot air balloon made of paper, with an opening at the bottom where a small fire is suspended.”
Sky lanterns are beautiful, especially when there’s a whole fleet of them floating in the night sky. They’re also cheap; you can buy a pack of 14 through Amazon for just $8.17.
But remember, it will cost a whole lot more than that if those pretty little lanterns start a fire and you wind up stuck with the suppression costs. And if they touch down safely, you could still find yourself in trouble with law. Sky lanterns are illegal in a growing number of jurisdictions around the world. According to Wild Fire Magazine, they are banned in 29 U.S. states, including California.
Several local jurisdictions — Morro Bay among them — have passed their own ordinances against them.
Even in places where sky lanterns remain legal, warnings from online sellers should be enough to scare people into finding another way to light up the night. (Glow sticks, maybe?)
Here’s some of the cautionary language:
“Do not use around dry crops.”
“Do not use within 5 miles of airport or when winds are in excess of 5 mph.”
“On purchasing Sky Lanterns ... you accept all responsibility for any personal injury, civil damages, claims, or criminal charges that result from the release of the Sky Lanterns. We advise checking with your local Fire Marshall to ensure sky lanterns are not prohibited in your area.”
If you need some cautionary tales to further persuade you of the danger, read on:
▪ In the United Kingdom, a sky lantern is blamed for starting a fire that killed a prize breeding cow.
▪ Also in the U.K., a sky lantern sparked a large fire at a recycling facility in 2013 that did $8 million in damages.
▪ Last year, one landed on a fire chief’s roof in Maine.
▪ Closer to home, a sky lantern started a fire that damaged a fourplex in Santa Rosa in 2016.
Thankfully, the fire in Morro Bay was confined to an acre. It could have been much worse; just look at the size of other fires that have consumed so much acreage on the Central Coast.
That raises another issue: Do firefighters really need to be chasing down sky lantern scofflaws when so much of California is burning?
Of course not.
Even at the bargain price of $8.17, a pack of sky lanterns could wind up endangering lives and costing a fortune.
Firefighters are dealing with enough right now; don’t make their job harder.