Balloons and Bushfires

by Jennifer Cram Brisbane Marriage Celebrant  © (12/09/2019) 
Categories:  Naming Ceremonies | Wedding Ceremonies | Wedding Rituals | Wedding Planning |
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No balloons sign
Balloons are a festive addition to many celebrations. Helium-filled balloons released during ceremonies make for great photos, provide opportunities for expression of joy, loss, and release, and for great photos. So, despite, despite growing recognition of their impact on wildlife through ingestion or entanglement, particularly those that live in and around the sea, together with land-based wildlife, and active banning by a few jurisdictions in Australia of mass releases, they are still relatively common, particularly at naming and funeral ceremonies.

But did you know that released balloons are a fire-hazard?

Helium and balloons


Balloons destined to be part of a balloon release are generally filled with with helium. Helium allows the balloon to rise and float, carried on wind and thermal updrafts for long distances. While helium is an inert gas that does not burn, its role in allowing balloons to travel great distance, together with what the balloons are made of and what may be attached to them, constitutes a risk of not only spreading a fire, but also of causing it.

There are two types of balloons on the market that are commonly used in balloon releases and for decorations  - latex (rubber) and Mylar (foil), each with their own specific hazard-creating properties, together with hazards that are common to both.

Mylar (Foil) Balloons as a Bushfire Hazard


Mylar (foil) is a lightweight metallised nylon material that is more efficient at keeping helium from escaping than latex. Mylar balloons constitute a bushfire hazard because
  • they can stay afloat for several weeks
  • they conduct static electricity. 
Therefore, they can travel for very long distances, trailing whatever is attached behind them. Should a Mylar balloon land on overhead power lines, it can can create a spark, or burn, which in turn could ignite surrounding grass or bush.

Latex Balloons as a Bushfire Hazard


Latex balloons are normally filled with either helium or air. Helium doesn't support flames, air does. The issue, as with Mylar balloons is the balloon itself, what's attached to it, and how far it can travel.

Natural latex is not highly flammable, however it can and does burn.  To make a latex balloon fire resistant you would have to fill it with water, which means it won't float.

When latex balloons are filled with helium so that they float, they typically retain their buoyancy for only a day or so because they deflate fairly quickly as the helium escapes through small pores in the latex. Helium atoms are smaller than those pores. The larger the balloon, the longer the float time. However, if inside of a latex balloon is coated with a special gel to reduce helium leakage, the float time is increased two or three-fold.

Ironically, latex balloons filled with air usually hold their size and shape much longer,  because air molecules are larger and slower moving than helium molecules, so air doesn't escape as quickly as helium would. While they may not rise to such heights, we've all had the experience of an air-filled balloon taking off when inadvertently released. On a windy day an air-filled balloon could travel significant distances.

Bushfire hazards common to both types of balloons


The capacity to travel great distances over periods of time is a feature of balloons, particularly helium filled balloons, so potentially a balloon released in a low-fire risk area, or on a low-fire risk day, could stay aloft long enough and travel far enough to constitute a fire hazard where conditions are different, or have changed.

Flammable strings or ribbons attached to balloons also pose a risk, regardless of the type of balloon.  Any contact with open flame or embers could allow the string to burn while the balloon is floating from one area to another, a potential to spread a fire.

Is it legal?


In Queensland, the release of balloons into the environment is considered littering under the Waste Reduction and Recycling Act 2011—whether released deliberately or by accident.

In New South Wales releasing more than 20 balloons at a time is illegal under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 No 156 (section 146E).

Play it safe


To play it safe
  • do not plan a release during summer, wherever you are
  • be careful to ensure balloons that are being used purely for decoration are weighted down and well anchored and therefore unlikely to escape
  • be careful even with individual balloons
Thanks for reading!

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