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The calls are annoying police because the flares are not flares at all; they are small lantern-type fliers powered by small candles, apparently being sold on beaches in the Far North and cheaply on the internet from a Dunedin-based trader.
When released at night, the lanterns can resemble flares.
Dunedin search and rescue adviser Rowan Leck said the New Zealand Rescue Co-ordination Centre placed calls to boats off the Otago coast when a member of the public called police about 11.30pm on December 23, after spotting a red light in the sky above South Dunedin.
The search and rescue effort was stopped after 15 minutes when a passing police officer discovered the "flare" was actually a red Chinese flying lantern that had been set off from De Carle Park in South Dunedin.
It was the only sighting of a "flare" local emergency services had received that had been a lantern, Mr Leck said.
Northern police communications Inspector Cornell Kluessien told NZPA the novelty items were bag-like and made of flimsy paper.
When the candle was lit, its heat filled a bag, like a balloon, and it lifted off, to float away, higher and higher.
Insp Kluessien said police had taken six calls from the Coromandel on Monday, three the day before and one from Auckland on Boxing Day.
"I'm sure the lanterns are pretty, but they're causing us big problems."
Police thought the lanterns were being sold on beaches and he appealed for a halt to sales.
Every reported "flare" sighting had to be taken seriously and the Coastguard alerted.
The lanterns may also be behind strange lights reported in the Taranaki night sky.
Several reports have now been made of up to seven bright orange lights moving across the skies above New Plymouth in the past week.
Mr Leck joined police in suggesting it would be helpful if people knew the difference between the appearance of a lantern and a distress flare.
Mr Leck said the main differences were that a flare flew higher (up to around 300m), burned brighter (a very intense red colour), and fell for about 40 to 60 seconds.
A lantern was lower and might float sideways, or up and down, and stay in the air for several minutes.
It was not as bright as a flare.
Lantern or flare?
If a member of the public sees what they believe to be a distress flare, they should note:
- Is the flare falling or staying at a constant height?
- How bright is the light?
- What colour is the light?
- How long has the flare been in the air?
- Try to get some markers to pinpoint where the flare is.
Source: NZ Police