Lanterns

Thai traditional new year balloon lanterns at night.

FLORENCE — It appears the last sky lantern festival has been held in unincorporated Pinal County.

The festivals, in which thousands of paper lanterns are lit and sail off into the night sky, was a topic of discussion at Wednesday’s meeting of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville, and Deputy County Manager Himanshu Patel noted the 2018 International Fire Code the board recently approved prohibits “untethered sky lanterns.” But Patel added the county could take steps to amend the code or make exceptions if the board wished.

None of the supervisors made a motion for an exception, and Supervisors Chairman Anthony Smith, R-Maricopa, said, “We’ll let it stand as written. …

“I really like these types of events,” Smith said, but “is it the right fit for Pinal County and the fairgrounds? Based on the comments I’ve received, I don’t think it’s a good fit.”

Such festivals have been annual events at the Pinal Fairgrounds and Event Center at Eleven Mile Corner for the last several years. Even with the county’s prohibition, cities and towns still have the option of holding their own festivals, Patel said. One is scheduled for Saturday just over the county line at Schnepf Farms near Queen Creek.

Spencer Humiston, owner of a company that puts on the festivals, told the board, “I feel sad about it; I enjoyed working with the fairgrounds. I hope we can still work something out.”

Supervisor Todd House, R-Apache Junction, said he saw “a fireball” sailing near his house in June of last year, followed it and found it had landed and started a brush fire. He said he put out the fire and took the lantern to a fire department the next day.

However, if the company organizing these events had the knowledge to do them safely and had insurance, House said he would be open to listening to a proposal.

Rose Robertson found her farm littered with lanterns after the last festival in early November. She told the board Wednesday she had asked in prior years to be included in the conversations leading up to the events but never had been. She said she once called Humiston, who told her never to dial his number again and hung up. She said lanterns littering her property cost her in several different ways.

Humiston told the board in the last five years his company has released a half million sky lanterns. Almost everywhere he does a festival, the 2018 International Fire Code, or the 2015 code — which also prohibits the lanterns — is in force. He said last year his company sent off 150,000 lanterns without a single fire incident.

“Anytime you do anything you run a risk,” Humiston said, but he added his company doesn’t hold events in areas at a high risk of fire or in high winds. The lanterns may travel between a quarter mile and a half mile before burning out and falling, and “by 5 p.m. the next day, I feel confident we’ve picked up 99%” of them, he said.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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