Yesterday's beauty, today's trash

Sky lanterns eventually return to Earth. Here they litter Rose Robertson’s cotton farm the day after the 2019 lantern festival at Eleven Mile Corner.

FLORENCE — Pinal County supervisors directed county staff to do some research on sky lantern festivals, in which paper Chinese lanterns are lit and allowed to float away.

“Is there a better way? Or should we not do it at all?” Supervisor Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville, asked at Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. The supervisors heard from speakers who had thoughts on Saturday’s festival, which was attended by some 8,000 people who released approximately that many lanterns above the Pinal Fairgrounds and Event Center at Eleven Mile Corner.

Julie Ferguson of Arizona City told the supervisors she favored Pinal County “instituting a ban on these festivals,” as perhaps 30 states and several cities have done.

Rose Robertson brought one of the many lanterns that littered her farm. She said her cotton, grain and palm trees are all “super-flammable,” and her cattle could die if they ingest the string. The potential for damage and the danger continue the next day when minors come on her property to clean up, she said.

After about five years of these events, “I’ve had enough of the lantern festival,” Robertson concluded to the supervisors.

Sarah Kelly of Coolidge emphasized to the supervisors that the festival threatens “a commodity, (Robertson’s) livelihood.” For a supposedly biodegradable product, the lanterns are “still in the canal today. … I’m allowed to throw trash out my window? No, I’d get a fine for that.”

Karen Searle, director of the Central Arizona Fair Association, which manages the fairgrounds, said the fairgrounds have hosted six such festivals in the last five years. The fairgrounds rent to the organizer and “it’s not our event,” she said. It’s been a well-attended event and “we’re blessed there haven’t been any issues.”

Spencer Humiston, owner of Night Lights of Salt Lake City, told the supervisors he has organized 120 such events around the country, launching some 500,000 sky lanterns. He consults firefighters and police and “we try to make sure everybody knows ahead of time” about the events. “I’m proud of the event, I like what we do.”

Humiston said he donates to a local high school for cleanup the next day after Pinal County’s event. Over the years, the donations have totaled about $25,000, including $6,000 this year. “It’s confusing this blew up as big as it did on Facebook,” he told the supervisors.

Problem elsewhere

The Gaston Gazette in North Carolina reported in 2015 that a cell tower fire at the town’s first “Lantern Fest” would likely prevent the event from happening there again. Several lanterns were caught in the tower and caused wiring and insulation to catch fire.

Firefighters quickly extinguished the flames. Still, the damage was estimated at up to $500,000; a county spokesperson told the newspaper the bill would be sent to Lantern Fest. Otherwise, no one was hurt and the event was an overall success, Humiston told the newspaper.

He said Wednesday outside the supervisors meeting that if these events were unsafe or had a bad record, “we would not be able to keep doing it.” Searle added outside the meeting that neighbors were notified ahead of Saturday’s event.

Humiston said the flammable part of the lantern is a compressed square of tissue paper covered with paraffin that burns out in about four minutes.

Supervisor Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, directed county staff to “look into the process and procedure for these events in the future.” He continued, “it’s not right to have someone’s property littered” and “the method of cleanup doesn’t seem correct.”

Other business

Also addressing the supervisors Wednesday was Reena Danser, who lives south of Florence in the vicinity of St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery. She said she and her neighbors have formed a group to address their area’s lack of fire protection. There is no fire department with direct responsibility for the area, and Danser noted a family lost everything in a fire this summer. Fire personnel responded from Gila River and Golder Ranch north of Tucson, but were too late to save anything.

Danser asked for the county’s time and expertise to help create a fire district “to protect our property and our lives.”

Rios asked county staff to draft a letter clarifying the county’s role, what it can do and what it doesn’t do, “so they know what their options are.”

In other business, the supervisors voted to accept a U.S. Justice Department grant, with local matching funds totaling $425,976 to allow for the expansion of Adult Probation Drug Court services. Included in the grant are two new positions for administrative tasks, allowing probation officers to spend more time with probationers.

The supervisors also reported on the success of the recent County Supervisors Association legislative summit, held for the first time in Pinal County. Rios said it was a chance for other county supervisors “to see things in our county they may want to duplicate.”

Supervisor Anthony Smith, R-Maricopa, thanked county staff for the six months of planning that preceded the event. He also noted that group’s Large County Caucus nominated Pinal Supervisor Todd House, R-Apache Junction, to be its third vice president.


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