***UPDATE*** - This event was moved to Kalamazoo and took place Saturday, Sept. 26. - Click here for the story.
MARNE, Mich. – A sky lantern festival is planned for Oct. 3 at the Berlin Raceway as the Wright Township Fire Department, and Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department assess the safety of the event.
Earlier this week a woman from Chicago created an unofficial Facebook event called “Grand Rapids Skylantern Festival October 3rd 2015” to invite her friends and family. She told FOX 17 within two hours more than 10,000 strangers joined the event and more than 5,000 said they were attending, but shortly after the woman cancelled the event.
Berlin Raceway Vice President Chris Danielson told FOX 17 that the sky lantern event is scheduled for Oct. 3, which is contracted through The Lantern Fest, a company based out of Salt Lake City, Utah.
"It's a really cool Instagram event. If it can be done safely as we've been told it has in other communities that have done it, it could be something really huge for West Michigan," Danielson said.
One of the company owners of The Lantern Fest Spencer Humiston told FOX 17 they signed a contract with Berlin Raceway for 2015 through 2017. Humiston said Berlin Raceway gives the Fire Marshal the final say until the day before the event to determine whether or not the event will happen. Despite this, he said they expect anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 lanterns for the Oct. 3 event: they burn up to four minutes, are 100 percent biodegradable, fire resistant, and typically land up to one quarter mile from venue.
Humiston said, “we have never had any ground fires because of the event,” and their company picks up the lantern debris the morning after the event, usually retrieving at least 99 percent of lanterns flown. Yet he also confirmed with FOX 17 his company held a sky lantern event in Gastonia, North Carolina earlier this May where lanterns accidentally caught a cellphone tower on fire. Humiston could not comment due to the ongoing investigation, but a local fire department there said no one was hurt but it cost $500,000 in damage.
However, local authorities continue to look into the safety as residents are polarized on whether or not they want this event in their backyard.
"When they put those lanterns up in the sky, they go in all the farmers' fields, and you know what the hell it's like to pick those things out of the field? They get caught in when they're bailing hay, they get caught in the plows, it's awful," said Cheryl Morse, local business owner and resident.
"I think it would be something really awesome to experience being able to see it from our backyard," said Jessica Wright, local resident. "I feel we have a lot of faith in our fire department that they're going to do a good job of making sure it's not going to cause any kind of damage or a hazard."
Wright and Tallmadge Fire Department Chief Mike Gavin told FOX 17 they test-lit lanterns Tuesday morning and they flew further than they were told to expect. Gavin said there are many safety factors to consider: wind speed, humidity, temperature, and other factors.
The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department Captain Valerie Weiss said they are looking into traffic concerns, especially the proximity of I-96 and other roads. She said they continue to meet with township and fire department officials.
Gavin said Wright Township officials must approve this special event. The Township Supervisor asked the Fire Department for their opinion.