MELBOURNE, Fla. - Lights in the evening sky have been observed moving in formation. Officials confirm the colorful orbs are a threat to public safety.
But these are not unidentified flying objects. Officials know exactly what they are: Sky lanterns.
The miniature, paper-thin, hot-air balloons have been popular in Asia for centuries and are often launched by the thousands during festivals.
Local 6 News partner Florida Today reports the lanterns are becoming more popular locally and across the country, released at weddings, memorials and other events to float through the sky and go wherever the wind takes them for as long as the fuel cell beneath the balloon survives.
A national group that documents UFO sightings online lists many cases it suspects are sky lanterns.
"I have been inundated with reports of clusters of red, yellow and orange lights usually in the nighttime sky," said Peter Davenport, director of the National UFO Reporting Center. "I've received thousands of reports of these luminous objects since June 2012."
Although Davenport has been unable to explain all the reports, he has concluded that a portion of them are sky lanterns.
Last month, a report from Longwood stated that "Three orange globes in a line in equal distance from each other slowly moving east to west," according to nuforc.org.
"I allow for the possibility that some of (the reports) probably, in fact almost certainly, are caused by devices of terrestrial origin," Davenport said. "But by no means all of them."
Sky lanterns have become a hot item at one fireworks store in Brevard County as customers buy the luminary for a variety of occasions.
"People use them for celebrations, memorials, birthdays, weddings," said Troy Ostman, manager of Sky King Fireworks of Cocoa. "It's one of our more popular items."
But authorities say sky lanterns are illegal to release, defined as fireworks under state law.
"Any type of balloon or sky lantern which require a fire underneath to propel them are prohibited under Florida state statute," Maj. Mike Demorat of the Brevard County Sheriff's Office wrote in an email to Florida Today.
"The open flame presents a fire hazard since it is free to float wherever the air current takes it."
Sky lanterns have not been officially blamed for any wildfire in Central Florida, but Sean Gallagher, manager of the Florida Fire Service's Orlando district, which includes Brevard County, couldn't rule out the possibility since about 10 percent of fires go without authorities determining a cause.
"They could present a fire hazard if they were to fall to the ground while they were still lit," Gallagher said.
Ostman, who said he sells between 50 to 100 sky lanterns a month, disagrees that the sky lanterns are against the law.
"They are not even a firework, you could sell them in any store, they don't have any explosive powder in them," Ostman said.
Sky King Fireworks sells sky lanterns, that are about the size of a kitchen garbage bag, in different colors and logos for about $10 each. A variety of sky lanterns are also available online.
Last month, beachside residents in Cape Canaveral had a close encounter with a huge version of the sky lantern last month.
One witness described the balloon launched from the beach near Buchanan Avenue as being more than 5 feet in diameter and the container beneath it the size of a paint can.
"This thing was coming right at us, and it got a little lift just before it got to our building, otherwise I thought it was going to land right in our balcony," said Larry Guest, who splits time between the Sea Dunes Oceanfront Condominium and a home in Orlando.
"The flame was really big and could do some damage if it flew into our balcony or the side of most any building."
The penalty for anyone caught using fireworks in Cape Canaveral is $200, according to Angela Apperson, assistant city manager.
"You just don't know where that hot bucket is going to land," Apperson said. "That is just not acceptable."
Although she is only aware of one complaint about sky lanterns in Cape Canaveral, Apperson suspects others who may have have observed sky lanterns are unaware of their potential threat and didn't report it.
It is also difficult for law enforcement to locate the launcher of a sky balloon that is seen drifting miles away.
Brevard County Sheriff's Office concedes it needs assistance in the form of reports and documentation of fireworks law violations.
"We definitely need the public's help in trying to identify who is setting them off," said sheriff's office spokeswoman Deputy Maria Fernez. "A good way of doing that is snapping a picture or video."
Brevard County Fire Marshal Frank Scates worries that may be too late to prevent a fire caused by a sky lantern that could threaten lives and property.
"You don't have control of them, you don't know where they are going to land," Scates said. "Hopefully they go out before they come back to Earth, but there is no guarantee. You have a potential fire waiting to happen."
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