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Hot air balloons take flight over Oklahoma for FireLake Fireflight Balloon Festival's fifth year

Three fully inflated hot air balloons (designs from left to right: rainbow stripes, Kansas University Jay Hawk mascot, red with black accents) stand in a field. Next to them is the shadow of a balloon in flight. Two other partially inflated balloons lie in the field. Trees and a few buildings are visible behind the balloons; people and trailers are in front of them. The sky is blue and clear.
Graycen Wheeler
Hot air balloons take off from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Festival Grounds in Shawnee.

The FireLake Fireflight Balloon Festival will be sending up hot air balloons and providing entertainment on the ground for tens of thousands of visitors this weekend. Citizen Potawatomi Nation presents the free event in Shawnee this Friday and Saturday.

“The Vice-Chairwoman, Mrs. Capps, always had a vision to bring a big family-friendly event here to Citizen Potawatomi Nation,” said Kelley Francen, who has served on the committee for this festival since it began. “She's always been fascinated with hot air balloons. And so the idea was kind of: hey, let's have a hot air balloon festival here.”

This is the event’s fifth year, although organizers canceled it in 2020 due to risks from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Of course, the pandemic hasn't ended,” said Jennifer Bell with Citizen Potawatomi Nation. “So we do still have some internal pandemic procedures in place, but it's mostly an outdoor event, which is great.”

The event has 25 balloons this year, more than ever before.

“That's about capacity,” Francen said. “I don't know that we could get another balloon out here.”

Several of the balloon pilots are from Oklahoma or neighboring states. But the event has also drawn pilots from Los Angeles and Marcos Island, Florida.

“It’s a regional event, but we have outreach to both coasts,” said Chris Sabia, the festival’s balloon pilot coordinator.

The balloons use wind to steer and vary the height at which they fly to take advantage of different wind directions. Sabia checks on weather conditions and makes sure it’s safe for balloons to fly.

“'Weather permitting' is the big statement that we use in ballooning,” Sabia said.

But he said the weather looks promising for this weekend, so balloon passengers should get the chance to admire pastures, ponds and even forests dotted with eagle nests.

 A mostly-inflated hot air balloon lies on its side in a field. The basket and the lower quarter of the envelope are visible. The envelope features blue, yellow, red and black rectangles. A man wearing a white t-shirt and dark cargo shorts kneels on a green tarp in front of the basket, holding the burner as it shoots a flame into the envelope. A red fan is just visible in the lower left corner, pointing into the opening at the bottom of the balloon. A leafy green tree and clear blue sky are visible in the background.
Graycen Wheeler
Pilot Darrell Duer Jr. prepares his balloon to launch.

In June, FireLake Fireflight Balloon Festival won the Oklahoma Travel Industry Association’s award for Outstanding Event.

“So if you think of all of the amazing events across the state of Oklahoma, this one was on the top of the heap for 2021,” said Stacy Cramer Moore, the Director of Tourism for the City of Shawnee.

This year, event organizers expect between 20,000 and 30,000 people to attend the festival.

“It's a lot of people, and it's great. We love it,” Bell said. “We want more than that all the time.”

Many of those attendees will be Oklahomans and visitors from neighboring states, but Sabia said the event also attracts hot air balloon enthusiasts all over the country.

“Once we open up the balloon ride portion of the event that sells out in about 48 hours,” Sabia said. “To have that kind of a draw in that short amount of time is incredible.”

People who didn’t snap up a balloon boarding pass for a full flight can take a quick flight above the treeline in a balloon that’s tethered to the ground.

If winds are low enough, the festival will put on a nightly balloon glow at 8:30 p.m. The pilots gather their balloons in a field and ignite their burners, filling the enormous, colorful envelopes with light.

“They almost look like huge candles with a really pretty cover on,” Francen said.

Moore added that the evening glows make her feel emotional and lucky to live in Shawnee.

“There's people who come in from all over the place to have this experience because it is unique, and it's special,” she said.

More information about the event, including a full schedule, is available at firelakeballoonfest.com.

Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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