Thousands stranded at Burning Man after rain turns desert to mud

President Biden briefed on the situation after heavy rainfall makes access to the site impossible. For some, the only way out is a long hike

A view of the annual Burning Man festival, as seen from a satellite. AFP
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US President Joe Biden was briefed on Sunday on the situation at the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert after torrential rains turned the annual counter-culture event into a quagmire.

Administration officials are monitoring the situation and are in touch with state and local officials after one person died, the White House said.

Thousands of people were ordered to shelter in place as the desert's fine, dusty surface became a mud pit and forced organisers to close the gates.

The Pershing County Sheriff's Office in northern Nevada said it was investigating “a death which occurred during this rain event", according to US media.

There were no details of the circumstances of the death or the person's identity.

“As this death is still under investigation, there is no further information available at this time,” the Sheriff's office said.

On Saturday, heavy rainfall forced the Bureau of Land Management and the Sheriff's office to close the entrance to Burning Man for the remainder of the event.

“Do not travel to Black Rock City,” Burning Man organisers tweeted, referring to the desert area where the alternative culture festival takes place.

“Access to the city is closed for the remainder of the event and you will be turned away.”

Organisers urged those already at the site to “conserve food, water and fuel, and shelter in a warm, safe space".

They said the rain was unlikely to stop until Sunday night. The festival was scheduled to conclude on Monday.

Due to downpours, the “playa,” the huge open-air esplanade where the event unfolds, was rendered impassable.

Some Burning Man partygoers said on Sunday that their spirits remained unbroken.

“Honestly, we’re having a great time,” organiser Theresa Galeani said.

The annual gathering in the Black Rock Desert about 177km north of Reno attracts nearly 80,000 artists, musicians and activists for a mix of wilderness camping and avant-garde performances.

Disruptions are part of the event's recent history. Organisers had to temporarily close entrances to the festival in 2018 due to dust storms, and the event was twice cancelled altogether during the pandemic.

'Survival guide'

On their website, the organisers said only four-wheel-drive vehicles with all-terrain tyres were 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,” they said on a “2023 Wet Playa Survival Guide” page.

If necessary, they said it was possible to walk 8km through the mud to the nearest road, where they would provide buses during daylight hours to take people to Reno.

The organisers also said they were installing mobile phone towers and opening the site's wireless internet for public access to give guests access to communications.

“We have done tabletop drills for events like this. We are engaged full-time on all aspects of safety and looking ahead to our exodus as our next priority,” they said.

Further rain was forecast.

Last year, the festival contended with an intense heatwave and strong wind, which made the experience difficult for the “burners", as festivalgoers are known.

Launched in 1986 in San Francisco, Burning Man aims to be an undefinable event, somewhere between a celebration of counterculture and a spiritual retreat.

Initially organised on a San Francisco beach, Burning Man has become a structured festival, with a budget of nearly $45 million (2018 figures) and more than 75,000 participants at the last edition, down from the previous one in 2019.

The festival culminates each year with the ceremonial burning of a 12-metre effigy.

It has been held since the 1990s in the Black Rock Desert, a protected area in north-west Nevada, which the organisers are committed to preserving.

Agencies contributed to this report

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Updated: September 03, 2023, 10:40 PM