The 70,000 People Trapped at Burning Man by Weather Can Finally Leave

The tens of thousands of people stranded at Burning Man began their mass exodus on Monday after a massive storm and flooding kept Burners stranded. Burning Man is an annual event in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, typically unfolding during the final days of August and the commencement of September. Burning Man is all about fun self-expression, self-reliance, communal effort, and art and costumes, although this year, such ethos came with water rationing and mud. Usually it’s sandstorms that Burners have to deal with; this year came the floods. 

The roughly 70,000 people on-site at the counterculture festival (actually, you’re not supposed to call it a festival) that became a household name were ordered by officials to stay put for days. No vehicles could leave; attendees were asked to remain indoors (or in tents) and ration food supplies and water due to persistent heavy rainfall on Friday night, which led officials to shut down the road that leads in and out of the makeshift town, Black Rock City, the Nevada desert site on federal lands where the annual celebration occurs. 

While they didn’t say why, organizers also asked attendees not to walk out of the Black Rock Desert, roughly 110 miles north of Reno, as others did this weekend to escape, such as Diplo and Chris Rock, whose departure went viral. “I legit walked the side of the road for hours with my thumb out,” Diplo wrote.

Others stayed. “Everyone has just adapted, sharing RVs for sleeping, offering food and coffee,” Rebecca Barger, a photographer from Philadelphia, at her first Burning Man, told AP News. “I danced in foot-deep clay for hours to incredible DJs.”  

Organizers stopped allowing vehicles in after Friday saw more than a half-inch of rainfall. The “burn,” the ceremonial torching of the giant wooden effigy known as “the Man,” a wooden temple, is lit up to burn down during the final two nights. This symbolic zenith of the event is meant to help attendees let go of what no longer serves them and mark the impermanence and simultaneous permanence of community and love. Many Burners integrate into related communities in their home town, celebrating Burning Man all year round through parties, smaller events such as Love Burn, and other camaraderie. 

However, the ritual burn of The Man was postponed to Monday night as authorities worked to reopen exit routes by the end of the Labor Day weekend.

So far, at least one fatality has been reported of a man in his 40s. However, organizers say that the death was unrelated to the weather. Nearby Pershing County sheriff said he was investigating but has not identified the man or a cause of death. AP News reports that President Joe Biden is aware of the situation at Burning Man, including the death, and the White House was in communication with local authorities.

By Monday, the lake bed where Burning Man is held began to dry out and harden. However, the roads are far from ideal; drivers say they must dodge foot-deep puddles and epic mud along the five-mile trek from Black Rock City to the paved road, The New York Times reports. Even on a year sans torrential rain, leaving the Playa can take 12 hours. 

As a result, organizers encourage folks to consider waiting until Tuesday to avoid a traffic jam of epic proportions. 

And some Burners, eager to enjoy the whole experience, even if it does come with mud and heavy rain, are more than ready to stay a bit longer. There may even be more rain due to a low-pressure system predicted to bring showers to the Playa by Monday night into Tuesday morning, the National Weather Service said.

“We are a little bit dirty and muddy but spirits are high. The party still going,” Scott London, a Southern California photographer, told AP News, noting that the disruption and departure offered “a view of Burning Man that a lot of us don’t get to see.” 

Burning Man adheres to a “gift economy” model that frowns upon using money. The Burn is all about gift-giving and communal sharing. Attendees are encouraged to arrive self-sufficient with essential provisions like food, water, and shelter (life support that, this year, they had to ration), in addition to the adventurous and often unusual gifts of art or experiences.

Burning Man began as a small gathering of friends who ignited a wooden figure on a San Francisco beach in 1986 and has graduated into a celebrity-riddled and Instagram-able global phenomenon. However, for many attendees, the core messages of art and community remain and provide a welcome thread that laces through their entire lives (no matter how much non-Burners like to give their Burner friends a hard time).

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