No longer stranded, tens of thousands clean up and head home after Burning Man floods

Sep 5, 2023, 10:34 AM | Updated: 7:04 pm

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The traffic jam leaving the Burning Man festival eased up considerably Tuesday as the exodus from the mud-caked Nevada desert entered another day following massive rain that left tens of thousands of partygoers stranded for days.

A pair of brothers from Arizona who took their 67-year-old mother with them to Burning Man for the first time spent 11 hours into early Tuesday morning just getting out of the festival site about 110 miles (177 kilometers) north of Reno.

“It was a perfect, typical Burning Man weather until Friday — then the rain started coming down hard,” said Phillip Martin, 37. “Then it turned into Mud Fest.”

Event organizers began letting traffic flow out on the main road Monday afternoon — even as they urged attendees to delay their exit to help ease traffic. The wait time to exit Black Rock City was about 3.5 hours as of Tuesday at about 5 p.m., according to the official Burning Man Traffic account on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Roughly 36,000 people remained at the site Tuesday by mid-afternoon, organizers said.

The annual celebration of free spirits in one of the most remote places in America launched on a San Francisco beach in 1986 and has since grown in size and popularity. Nearly 80,000 artists, musicians and activists visit the Black Rock Desert every year to build a city of colorful themed camps, decorated art cars and guerilla theatrics in preparation for the ceremonial burnings of a towering, faceless effigy and a temple dedicated to the dead.

Most attendees travel to the stark desert for a week to express themselves with music and art, commune with nature, or “find themselves.″ Others visit the ancient lake bottom for a psychedelic party full of hallucinogens and nudity before the burning of the wooden effigy.

The event this year began Aug. 27 and was scheduled to end Monday morning, with attendees breaking down camps and cleaning up — until the rains came.

After more than a half-inch (1.3 centimeters) of rain fell Friday, flooding turned the playa to foot-deep mud — closing roads and forcing burners to lean on each other for help.

Burning Man emphasizes self-sufficiency, and many burners arrive in Black Rock Desert with limited supplies, expecting to face challenges in the form of brutal heat, dust storms — or torrential rains.

Disruptions are part of the event’s recent history: Dust storms forced organizers to temporarily close entrances to the festival in 2018, and the event was twice canceled altogether during the pandemic.

Mark Fromson, 54, who goes by the name “Stuffy” on the playa, had been staying in an RV, but the rains forced him to find shelter at another camp, where fellow burners provided him food and cover. Another principle of Burning Man, he said, centers on the unconditional giving of gifts with no expectation of receiving one.

After sunset Friday, Fromson set off barefoot through the muck for a long trek back to his vehicle — the dense playa suddenly a thick clay that clung to his feet and legs. The challenge, he said, was the mark of a “good burn.”

“Best burn yet,” he said. “The old, crusty burners who have been out there for 40 years would just laugh at us with all the creature comforts we come onto the playa with.”

The road closures came just before the first of the ceremonial fires were scheduled to begin Saturday night. Shortly thereafter, the fires themselves were postponed as authorities worked to reopen exit routes by the end of the Labor Day weekend.

“The Man” was torched Monday night, but the temple was set to burn at 8 p.m. Tuesday. By tradition, revelers leave the names of departed loved ones and other remembrances to be burned in the temple. For many, torching the temple has become the centerpiece of the burning — a more intimate, spiritual event than the rave-party-like immolation of the effigy.

The rain also posed significant challenges for authorities responding to emergency situations — including the death of a man identified as 32-year-old Leon Reece.

Due to the rain, access to the area where Reece was reported unresponsive was delayed, but authorities said it did not appear weather played a role in his death. A cause of death is pending the results of an autopsy, which can take six to eight weeks, according to the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office.

Amid the flooding, revelers were urged to conserve their food and water, and most remained hunkered down at the site. Some attendees, however, managed to walk several miles to the nearest town or catch a ride there.

Many stuck at Burning Man turned to the official Black Rock City radio station — BMIR 94.5 FM — to issue pleas for rides to Reno, San Francisco and other neighboring cities. DJs informed listeners about what the stranded have with them — crates, bicycles, supplies — and offers to split fuel and food costs.

Alexander Elmendorf braved the harsh weather at a campsite set with trailers, RVs and an aerial rig. He was waiting Tuesday to clean up the debris left behind by the tens of thousands who exited the area.

“It’s gonna be a lot of work for everyone involved,” said Elmendorf, 36, who planned to stay until Friday to help with cleanup efforts. “And by that, I mean, get everything off the ground.”

By Tuesday afternoon the ground had lost most of its moisture, which at one point you could build a mud-based snowman in, he said. Elmendorf, who has been to Burning Man three other times, said staff had essentially kicked the last burners out each year.

“No one’s rushing anyone out this year,” he said. “I think more so people are rushing themselves off.”


This story corrects Phillip Martin’s age to 37.

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No longer stranded, tens of thousands clean up and head home after Burning Man floods