Burning Man Freed From Mud

A satellite image of the festival site in drier times. Photo: DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d/DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

The “playa” at this year’s Burning Man has traded its notorious dust for impassable mud. More than 70,000 people at the annual festival in northwestern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert have been cut off from the outside world — at least by vehicle — after as much as three months of rain fell over the weekend. Attendees of the “radical self-reliance”-focused event who aren’t willing to hike out are now waiting for the (typically) dry lake to return to form so they can use wheels again. Below are updates on this mud-caked developing story.

Authorities identify man who died during festival

Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen provided more information concerning the death of a Burning Man attendee last week. The man has been identified as 32-year-old Leon Reece, per the San Francisco Chronicle. According to Allen, his office received a call about an unresponsive man around 6:24 p.m. on September 1.

Medical staff on site performed CPR on Reece, but he was declared dead by the time authorities arrived on the scene. He was transferred to the Washoe County Medical Examiner’s Office and a cause of death has yet to be determined.

Roads reopened, heralding traditional Burning Man gridlock

Burners are stranded no longer. Organizers announced on Monday that the roads from Black Rock City had been reopened, as had the festival’s exclusive little airport. Now the tens of thousands of attendees only have to contend with the traditional buzzkill of sitting in traffic:

Let the exodus begin?

Event organizers reported improving conditions on Monday morning, predicting that people may be able to begin leaving the playa en masse starting around midday — though they asked burners to consider delaying their departure until Tuesday. Even in years when the ground is hard, the traditional “exodus” from the event becomes a massive traffic jam.

How the tech titans are faring

The Wall Street Journal reports that some tech-sector bigwigs may have gotten caught in the muck:

Attendees said they spotted [Elon] Musk’s brother, Kimbal Musk, during the festivities. Brock Pierce, a prominent bitcoin entrepreneur, and Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, were also among the tech entrepreneurs and chief executives seen at the event.  … Select tech entrepreneurs and chief executives use a private airspace on the Burning Man playa to fly in and out to the festival, but the weather had shut that option down over the weekend, attendees said. Two of the larger tech camps, filled with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, Mirage Garage and Robot Heart, faced extreme flooding, attendees said.

On the plus side, maybe somebody will launch a doomed startup devoted to transforming how people walk through mud:

Adrian Aoun, a former Google employee and currently the CEO and founder of health tech startup Forward, said getting through the mud required ingenuity. He and members of his group put zip-close bags over their feet to protect from the moisture, and then put socks over the zip-close bags to get traction. 

The official burning of the man has been postponed to Monday night

The traditional bonfire, during which a massive effigy of a man is set ablaze to mark the close of the festival, has not been cancelled:

Biden definitely now knows what Burning Man is

The president told reporters on Sunday that he had been briefed on the situation and that the White House was in touch with local officials.

More storms on Sunday

The National Weather Service’s current forecast indicates more precipitation is likely, including the possibility of heavy rain via a thunderstorm on Sunday. SFGate spoke with an NWS meteorologist about the rare rainfall:

Since Friday, six-tenths to eight-tenths inch of rain have fallen over the Black Rock Desert, which is spread across northwest Nevada near the town of Gerlach. National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Johnston said the weather service does not have an official gauge on the Playa, but a Black Rock gauge provides information to them. Some media outlets have reported that the desert recorded up to 6 inches of rain, and Johnston said those reports are inaccurate. 

It takes very little rain to turn the Playa into mud, and Johnston said the soil was already been moist due to recent rain in the area from Tropical Storm Hilary. “It’s like clay out there,” said Johnston, who works out of the weather service’s Reno office. The chance for rain continues through 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday over the Black Rock Desert, but Johnston said the heaviest rain will likely have fallen before 6 p.m.

The good news is that the weather looks sunny and mostly clear for the rest of the week — though it’s not clear how long it will take for the muck to turn back into clay.

What a mess

With the “temporary metropolis” of Black Rock City still surrounded by deep and sticky sludge, it’s not yet clear when Burners will be able to drive out. Aside from that disrupting the post-burn plans of tens of thousands of people, there are on-site logistical concerns, the Reno Gazette Journal reports:

The closures and order to remain in shelter come as the event was supposed reach its zenith on Saturday night with the burning of the giant wooden Man effigy towering over the temporary city. All vehicle traffic within the encampment has been halted, including servicing for the thousands of portable toilets that make the event possible. Organizers have also begun rationing ice sales. Many attendees appeared to remain in good spirits, playing beer pong in the muddy streets or splashing in the standing water. Techno continued echoing around the encampment, and spontaneous dance parties kept breaking out. Walking was almost impossible Saturday morning, but started to improve as the ground began to dry. Then it began raining again.

Organizers seem hopeful conditions will improve by Monday night and are lining up mud-capable vehicles to handle any emergency evacuations in the meantime. They also say they are setting up temporary cell towers and expanding Wi-Fi access.

Event organizers have already rationed ice sales, but Burning Man regulars typically bring a lot of supplies to the encampment, and so far there have not been any reports of widespread food or water shortages. Organizer Theresa Galeani told the Associated Press that they were getting supplies to people who needed them:

We have not witnessed any negativity, any rough times. Some people … were supposed to leave a few days ago, so they’re out of water or food. But I am an organizer, so I went around and found more water and food. There is more than enough here for people. We just have to get it to everyone.

The only way off the playa, as of Sunday, is a five-mile hike across the mud to Washoe County Road 34, which is paved.

A ‘harrowing’ hike out for one SCOTUS lawyer, but Diplo and Chris Rock eventually got a ride.

Legal pundit Neal Katyal described his overnight exodus from the site on foot as a harrowing hike:

Diplo and Chris Rock apparently thumbed it into town:

Longtime conservative activist and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, meanwhile, seems fairly optimistic about the situation:

One person died at the festival

Authorities are investigating a reported death at the event over the weekend “which occurred during this rain event.” The details are not yet clear.

Authorities closed the entrance on Saturday

This image gives you a sense of what the dry lake looked like before the rainwater became mud:

This post has been updated.

Burning Man Freed From Mud