Burning Man or Drowning Man? — Record Rainfalls in Nevada Turn Desert Festival into Mud Pit

Julia Schneemann |
Burning Man
Record amounts of rain fell in Nevada, turning the Burning Man into an unexpected mud festival. | Picture: Dennis Hickmann via The Burning Man Project Blog

Around 70,000 people are currently trapped at the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock Desert, NV. The remote desert area in northwest Nevada was hit with three months’ worth of rain in the 24-hour period between Friday and Saturday, September 1 and 2. The unprecedented heavy rainfalls turned the arid, dry desert sand into a clay-like mud, rendering vehicles of all kinds useless. Festival-goers got stuck walking in the mud, with the desert-clay sticking to boots and tires.

Some revelers have used the mud to build mud sculptures. | Picture: Diplo Instagram Stories

Organizers of the festival decided to close the gate to the festival and the gate road — the only access road to the festival — until further notice. The decision to close the road was made after a joint meeting with the Bureau of Land Management and the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office due to unusual weather conditions on the playa. Playa is the term used to describe sunken, dry lakebeds in deserts, where water evaporates rather than running off, and even a small amount of rainfall can quickly soak the area.

“As of 9am Sunday, the roads remain too wet and muddy to officially open them for Exodus. There is also an uncertain weather front approaching Black Rock City. Some vehicles with 4WD and all-terrain tires are able to navigate the mud and are successfully leaving. But we are seeing most other types of vehicles that try to depart getting stuck in the wet mud which hampers everyone’s Exodus. Please do NOT drive at this time. Road conditions differ based on the neighborhood. We will update you on the driving ban after this weather front has left the area. We plan to burn the Man at 930pm tonight, weather permitting. We will share additional information by noon today.”

– The Burning Man Project

Black Rock turns into a city with thousands of RVs camped for the long weekend. Many RVs got stuck trying to leave the festival. | Picture: Dennis Hickmann via The Burning Man Project Blog

This weekend in Nevada, more than half an inch (1.3cm) of rain — and in some parts close to 1 inch (2.5cm) — fell in a short period of time, causing floods across the state, including the desert where the Burning Man festival is being held. According to Mark Deutschendorf, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno, the average rainfall for the whole month of September would be 0.21 inches (0.53cm) for this region.

The rain made it “virtually impossible for motorized vehicles to traverse the playa,” according to the Pershing County Law Enforcement Association. People are advised to shelter in place and not attempt to drive out as this hinders access for rescue and emergency vehicles and to wait until the ground has dried enough to drive on safely, at which point an announcement will be made.

“You may see logoed vehicles from Rangers, ESD (Fire and Medical), DPW, and NV Operations moving about the playa. We need to survey which roads are in good and poor conditions. We also have some staff vehicles with staff bumper stickers and no logo that are qualified to move. Please help us keep streets clear by not driving, so we can set the stage to open the city back up again and begin Exodus.

REPEAT: Specific authorized Staff and Emergency Vehicles may be moving about the city. This does NOT mean we are releasing all vehicles. We have found that ONLY 4WD vehicles with all-terrain tires are currently able to move. Anything less than that will get stuck. It will hamper Exodus if we have cars stuck on roads in our camping areas, or on the Gate Road out of the city. PLEASE don’t be that person. The roads will dry. The issue is NO LONGER ruining the roads (that is the concern before we start the event), but once we are in Exodus we need the roads to be clear, and not to have vehicles blocking traffic flow.”

Bike mud
Even the usually popular bikes were rendered useless in the thick, sticky mud. | Picture: JevPic Instagram

The Pershing County Sheriff’s Office is currently investigating a death that occurred during this rain event. “The family has been notified, and the death is under investigation. As this death is still under investigation, there is no further information available at this time.”

There are unconfirmed rumors of a virus outbreak, but this could be skin reactions from the saltwater clay mixing with the rainfalls, causing rashes similar to contact dermatitis.

A large concern is the availability of drinking water as well as the safe disposal of wastewater. The portable toilets used at the festival were apparently not picked up on Saturday as the trucks that clean out these toilets could not access the site. Some Burning Man attendees reported on social media that trucks had resumed cleaning on Sunday.

DJ Diplo, whose real name is Thomas Wesley Pentz, shared his Strava account on Instagram, showing how he walked out of the desert for 6.8 miles to the nearest main road. | Picture: Diplo Instagram

Some people got so desperate to leave the site that they walked out to the nearest main road. Actor Chris Rock and DJ Diplo were amongst those making the six-mile-trek out and were apparently rescued by a fan.

“I legit walked the side of the road for hours with my thumb out,” DJ Diplo wrote on his Instagram Account. Diplo was hired to DJ at an event in Washington and was determined not to cancel, prompting him to undertake the arduous hike journey barefoot and covered in mud.

The Burning Man Festival began on Sunday, August 27, and had been scheduled to end on Monday, September 4, 2023.

Cheeky revelers at Burning Man, giving a smile to helpers. | Picture: Zoggy Zog Twitter

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