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Burning Man attendees using buckets for toilets, festival becomes mudpit

Updated September 3, 2023 - 7:28 pm

People were forced to use buckets for toilets as the rain continued to fall Sunday at the Burning Man festival in northern Nevada, where tens of thousands of people were still stranded after the wet weather turned the usually dry desert floor into a huge mud pit.

Attendees at the annual festival, which got underway last Sunday and runs until Labor Day in the Black Rock Desert about 140 miles north of Reno, said the mood Sunday was mixed. While some people were continuing to have a bright outlook despite the gray weather, others were cautious, scared and bummed out.

Becky Steele, 33, of Orange County, California, who was at Burning Man with several friends, said she and her group were doing what authorities have been asking Burning Man attendees to do after the rains spurred the closure of all roads into and out of the festival: ride the storms out and shelter in place.

“A lot of people are prepared for this and a lot of people aren’t. I’d say it’s pretty split,” Steele said in text messages because spotty phone service made it too difficult to have a conversation. “I think the people who are prepared are mostly helping the ones who aren’t.”

Steele provided a few observations. She said a friend who had biked around the festival on Sunday had noticed that a lot of people were in a bad mood, but that most people she knew were staying positive. She said people were still partying Saturday night. A lot of people were using buckets for toilets, she said, because the trucks that service the portable toilets haven’t been able to access the festival.

Steele was one of an estimated 70,000 people who were still stranded Sunday at Burning Man, which is a huge, annual gathering that transforms a stretch of northern Nevada desert into a makeshift community called Block Rock City.

Rebecca Barger, a photographer from Philadelphia, arrived at her first Burning Man on Aug. 26 and was determined to stick it out through the end.

“I’m not leaving until both ‘The Man’ and ‘The Temple’ burn,” Barger said, referring to the wooden effigy and wooden structure that are traditionally torched during the event’s last two nights.

The Pershing County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday also reported at least one death at the festival, but provided few further details other than to say that the person’s family has been notified and that the death was under investigation.

The sheer amount of rain that has fallen on Black Rock City has made it “virtually impossible for motorized vehicles to traverse the playa,” said a statement issued Saturday by the sheriff’s office.

More rain was expected in the coming days, which could cause “further delays and disruptions,” the sheriff’s office said.

According to the Reno forecast office of the National Weather Service, scattered showers and thunderstorms were expected in the area of Burning Man until about 8 p.m. Sunday night. Monday was expected to be sunny and clear, and with that forecast comes the hope that Monday will be safe enough to reopen some or all of the roads.

Mark Deutschendorf, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno, told the Associated Press that more than half an inch of rain and possibly close to 1 inch fell this weekend in parts of northwest Nevada, which includes the area where the Burning Man festival was being held.

For the Reno area, the average rainfall in September is 0.21 inches, Deutschendorf said.

A spokesperson for the Nevada National Guard said Sunday it had not been deployed.

“As of right now there has not been a request for activation of the Nevada National Guard,” said Capt. Emerson Marcus.

Elizabeth Ray, Gov. Joe Lombardo’s communications director, said Lombardo’s office will “continue to evaluate” whether the Guard should be activated.

“The Office of the Governor is aware of the inclement weather and conditions at the Burning Man festival,” Ray said in a text message. “Our office is coordinating with local and state emergency management, event organizers, and the Bureau of Land Management, which permits the event, to ensure the safety and security of attendees.”

President Joe Biden told reporters in Delaware on Sunday that he was aware of the situation at Burning Man, including the death, and the White House is in touch with local officials. Biden said he didn’t know the cause of the death.

Meanwhile, social media posts showed the situation on the ground at Burning Man.

Diplo, the DJ, posted on X that he and comedian Chris Rock walked five miles in the mud before they were picked up by a pickup truck driver.

Contact Brett Clarkson at bclarkson@reviewjournal.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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