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After Anchorage paper lantern launch, fire official points out they're illegal

An interfaith event that included the launching of paper lanterns in support of victims of domestic violence led officials at Merrill Field to briefly reroute airplane traffic Thursday night when the lanterns appeared in the flight path, according to Anchorage police.

Scores of lanterns were released at about 8 p.m. after the "Shed the Light" event at St. Anthony Catholic Church in East Anchorage. The lanterns -- lit by small candles -- streamed into the night sky above the church and were easily visible from the Russian Jack neighborhood just east of Bragaw Street between the Glenn Highway and DeBarr Road.

However, the lantern release came as a surprise to the Anchorage Police Department.

APD Sgt. Shaun Henry arrived at the church after police received calls about rerouted planes and a lantern landing on a vehicle.

"We had a car on the Glenn Highway going about 70 mph that almost crashed," Henry said outside the church.

Police reported no injuries or accidents as a result of the lantern release. All the lanterns fell to the ground within about 10 minutes of the launch. No citations were issued, said Dani Myren, a police spokeswoman.

In a statement Friday, the Anchorage Fire Department described paper lanterns as "a significant fire hazard" and called on the public to report "the unlawful use of these devices."

The statement referenced the lantern sendoff Thursday night at St. Anthony Catholic Church as a "well-intentioned effort to bring attention to their cause." But AFD forester John See said sending paper lanterns into the sky is illegal under both state statute and local ordinance.

"These things are dangerous, for sure," See said.

See cautioned that the lanterns can ignite grass, wood-shingle roofs or wood piles alongside homes when they land. In See's office, he said, he keeps a scorched lantern from last summer that ignited a tree on the Anchorage Hillside. The AFD statement cited a 2013 fire in England in which 100,000 tons of recycling material was set aflame by a lantern.

Jenny Michaelson, director of the Office of Safe Environment for the Archdiocese of Anchorage, said the church has worked with Abused Women's Aid in Crisis in the past on similar lantern releases. But this was the first time such an event was held so near an airport's flight path.

Michaelson said no harm was meant by the launch, which she said was otherwise a positive community event.

"It's trying to shed light on what the experiences are of those who experience domestic violence," she said.

See asked anyone who observes the use of paper lanterns to call the AFD fire investigator at 267-4900, the arson hotline at 267-5060 or Crime Stoppers at 561-7867.

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