LEWISTON — Two days after 16 people died in the nation’s most deadly hot air balloon tragedy, organizers of Lewiston-Auburn’s upcoming balloon festival were preparing a statement Monday afternoon about safety.

The Great Falls Balloon Festival will take place Aug. 19, 20 and 21 in Lewiston. The popular festival is attended by thousands.

In its 24th year, there have been no deaths; there has been one known fire-related accident that burned the balloon after a fuel leak, which created what witnesses called a fireball. That left four with injuries, including the pilot. The balloon never got into the sky.

Saturday’s crash in Texas happened after the balloon hit power lines in flight, investigators said Monday.

Hot air balloons are considered aircraft and regulated by the federal government, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Safety Transportation Board.

Since 2014, when the NSTB told the FAA that there weren’t enough safety regulations for hot air balloons, there have been 25 balloon accidents in the country, resulting in 4 deaths and 25 serious injuries.

Those numbers don’t include the 16 who died Saturday in Texas.

The Great Falls Balloon Festival began in 1992 to give fundraising opportunities to local nonprofits, and to promote and celebrate Lewiston-Auburn.

During those years, it is not known how many — if any — accidents have occurred, but the one fire-related accident happened in 2011 when four of eight people in the balloon’s basket were burned from a fire triggered by a fuel line leak.

Pilot Andre Boucher of New Hampshire was treated for second-degree burns to his face, head, neck and arms.

At the time, Louise Blouin and Fern Mendoza were in the basket when the balloon lifted four feet off the ground, then a fireball erupted. The basket came back down. Everyone scrambled out.

Blouin was not harmed but her hair was singed. She was shaken. Mendoza told the Sun Journal “it was our first and last ride.”

The accident was a rare “backflash” propane explosion which prompted four people to be treated at hospitals, said then balloon meister and seasoned pilot John Reeder.

Maine State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said that fire happened because of a leak in a fuel line that fed the balloon’s burner. “It was a malfunction,” Thomas said.

The Fire Marshal’s Office has worked with Lewiston safety officials during festivals to ensure fire codes are followed involving how the balloon’s propane tanks are filled, Thomas said. Over the years his agency has encountered no violations, he said.

His department does not regulate hot air balloons, Thomas said. Balloons are considered aircraft and regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Once they leave the ground they come under the FAA and the NTSB,” he said. “Our domain is safety in transferring propane, filling the balloon’s tanks.”

When asked for his advice for balloon enthusiasts, Thomas said transferring fuel “has got to be done safely.” Nationally there are “a huge number of these festivals” across the country.

On the Great Falls Balloon Festival web page, seasoned pilots and festival co-founders John and Mickey Reeder offered “Ballooning 101” safety information.

Balloon pilots must pass yearly in-flight tests to maintain commercial pilot licenses, and the website states that the Great Falls Balloon Festival only invites pilots who have met those qualifications.

The balloons must pass yearly safety inspections, which includes testing the fabric, fuel system, the basket, burners and all related equipment, according to the website.

Unlike planes, hot air balloons need good weather to go up, calm winds and cool temperatures. Because the sun generates wind and heat, the best time for flying is early in the morning before the sun gets too high, and early evening before the sun sets.

Balloons are inflated with air from fans. When the balloon is inflated enough, the pilot uses his burner to heat the air inside the balloon. The hot air is what makes the balloon rise.

Pilots must be aware of weather and equipment. “The safety of the people in the basket is a top priority,” Reeder states on the website. “The pilots always have the final say in whether conditions are right for them to fly.”

Reeder could not be reached for comment Monday.


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