John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
What is causing these glowing orbs over the Mission District?
I was humping down Mission Street Wednesday night around 10:30 p.m. when it became apparent that I had company. Rising above the old armory (now a giant porn set for Kink.com) were several glowing orbs, hovering lazily together like a formation of monstrous fireflies.
It looked like this:
For the next 10 minutes a steady stream of flickering lights drifting over the Mission District toward South San Francisco, where they blipped out of existence. At the high point, eight of them swam together in the same whirlpool of air currents. I gawked at the sky for a while, then hit the phone for some Googling.
Turns out this isn't the first time that fulgent blobs decided to party over the Mission. Early in the morning of December 9, news outlets picked up the story of a man who, after witnessing a similar aerial ballet in the taco-famous 'hood, concluded that "UFOs are here for Papalote salsa." Here's his video (bad language ahoy):
So what's invading San Francisco's airspace? Aliens munching popcorn while hoping to catch today's Mayan apocalypse? Some kind of new military aircraft? Or is it like YouTube commenter my67falcon says about the second video above: "Swamp gas from a weather balloon was trapped in a thermal pocket and reflected the light from Venus"?
Sorry, all you folks hoping for a probing – no such luck, yet. I managed to track the gleaming globules within a few blocks of where they seemed to be emanating from before the stream suddenly stopped. But that was close enough to see the red-paper skins covering internal flames that identified them as Asian sky lanterns.
The Lantern festival isn't for another couple of months, but somebody has decided to celebrate early. These little dirigibles, typically constructed from oiled rice paper, bamboo and a candle, are reportedly becoming more popular among Americans celebrating parties and weddings. According to the Wall Street Journal, we can partially blame Ed Helms for that, because The Hangover 2 contained such a lamp-festooned wedding scene. (Really? That many people liked the movie?)
There's one group that's not going gaga for these imported pyrotechnics: firefighters. Sky lanterns can come down a mile away from their launching point with the flame still going, so anyone using them is basically catapulting bags of fire into the neighborhood blindfolded. Last year, one landed near Myrtle Beach and started a wildfire that carbonized 800 acres of forest. Animal lovers in rural areas should note that they also might be killing cows.
While some states have outlawed the lanterns, they fall into a legal gray zone in forest fire-prone California. In June, the state fire marshal released a bulletin meant to "identify a potential fire safety problem" with the devices. (I'm still waiting to hear back from the San Francisco Fire Department for its take.) California regulations suggest they are de facto banned, according to the bulletin, including laws prohibiting "fire hazards" and the careless placement of ignition sources like smoldering cigarettes and welding torches. Officials with the state forest department, meanwhile, say they're legal to sell but require a permit to launch.
So listen up, mystery lamp-launcher in the Mission: Perhaps you should knock it off for a while. Here, watch this video of sky lanterns in Thailand instead: