Burning Man festival ends; revellers escape muddy nightmare

Attendees look at a double rainbow over flooding on a desert plain on September 1, 2023, after heavy rains turned the annual Burning Man festival site in Nevadas Black Rock desert into a mud pit. AFP
Attendees look at a double rainbow over flooding on a desert plain on September 1, 2023, after heavy rains turned the annual Burning Man festival site in Nevada’s Black Rock desert into a mud pit. AFP

Burning Man attendees, marooned in the muck due to relentless rain, are finally making their escape from the remote Nevada desert festival. 

The festival’s organisers swung open the exit gates on Monday, providing relief to tens of thousands of festival-goers who had been trapped by mud. 

Yet, despite the road to freedom being open, many of the 64,000 people still on site as of Monday might opt to stay an extra night to witness the festival’s colossal effigy set ablaze on Monday night, a day later than planned.

Unanticipated summer showers transformed the annual counterculture arts festival into a quagmire. The festival’s location in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, once the bed of Lake Lahontan 15,000 years ago, is 15 miles from the nearest town and 110 miles north of Reno.

For days, up to 70,000 attendees were required to hunker down and conserve provisions as officials shut down roads, preventing vehicles from departing.

A death at the event, with scant details, was confirmed by officials on Sunday, prompting an ongoing investigation.

Festival organisers have urged drivers to exercise caution on Monday and possibly postpone their departure until Tuesday to alleviate traffic congestion. Even before the roads officially opened, some attendees reported a steady trickle of vehicles leaving since dawn, with many struggling through the mire.

The exit route involves a 5-mile dirt road leading to the nearest highway. Images circulating online revealed hefty recreational vehicles mired up to their tyre rims in mud, with some employing boards under the wheels for traction.

The temporary airport serving the festival was back in operation on Monday, with all outgoing flights bound for Reno, Nevada, according to the Burning Man Traffic Twitter account. Flights to Burbank, near Los Angeles, and Oakland were set to resume on Tuesday. The Black Rock City Municipal Airport materialises in the desert for 13 days annually, using two runways on the dry lake bed, before disappearing.

Meteorologists from the National Weather Service announced on Monday that the rain had ceased after the area received between three-quarters of an inch to 1.5 inches of rain since late Friday.

Despite orders to stay put, some festival-goers attempted to walk or drive out to the highway, while others chose to continue celebrating in the rain. Videos shared on social media depicted revellers, including a few children, sliding through the sodden muck, their attire caked in wet earth.

Brian Fraoli, a 45-year-old “burner” from New York who works in finance, embraced the challenging circumstances. He initially attempted to drag his luggage through the mud in an escape bid but eventually decided to relax and savour the experience. Fraoli reflected positively, saying, “Overall, it was an amazing week, and next time we will be more prepared.”

Every year, Burning Man draws tens of thousands of participants to the Nevada desert to dance, create art, and be part of a self-sufficient, temporary community. Originating as a small gathering on a San Francisco beach in 1986, the week-long festival now attracts celebrities and social media influencers, with regular tickets priced at $575.

The festival’s customary penultimate night features the incineration of a giant wooden effigy of a man, along with a fireworks display. Originally slated for Sunday night, the event was rescheduled for Monday night at 9 p.m. PDT (0400 GMT on Tuesday), as per organisers’ announcement.

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