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Rain ends and exodus begins at Burning Man


Doused by days of rain, thousands of people stuck on the muddy playa at the Burning Man festival began to trickle out of the remote area in northwest Nevada on Monday.

Long lines of RVs, trucks, trailers and other vehicles could be seen in the afternoon as attendees slowly made their exit across the desert.

Festival organizers delayed the “exodus” of attendees several times because a major road remained “a bit too muddy” for vehicles to pass, according to a statement on the festival website.

Finally, at 2 p.m., the festival radio station, BMIR 94.5, announced that “exodus operations have officially begun” and the “driving ban has been lifted.” The airport at Black Rock City also reopened in the afternoon, organizers said.

As of Monday afternoon, there were roughly 64,000 people still on site, according to BMIR.

Local authorities are investigating the death of one festival-goer, whose family has been notified, according to a dispatcher at the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office. The fatality, which occurred Friday and was not related to the weather, involved an approximately 40-year-old man who could not be resuscitated, a festival spokesperson said.

Monday marked a turning point for this year’s beleaguered festival. The sun shone, warming the Black Rock Desert above 70 degrees, according to the National Weather Service office in Reno. By early afternoon, the festival’s webcast showed people walking and biking around Black Rock City with ease.

Organizers asked attendees to delay their departures until Tuesday to alleviate congestion, and they urged people to wait for a ride from a central location instead of trying to walk through the mud.

Their pleas came too late, however, to stop the many frustrated festival-goers who had already made their escape.

By Sunday afternoon, it was clear to everyone that exodus would not happen on schedule. For Katya Lee and her crew, that meant splitting camp to conserve food and water, and sending a group of 20 on foot in an attempt to evacuate.

They avoided the festival ground’s central “city,” which had become almost impassible with mud, and walked out along the open desert, with no clear sense of what might await them when they reached the paved road miles away, or whether they might become stranded en route.

“When we decided to walk, we were not sure there were going to be enough buses. So we just kind of had to bet on it,” said Lee, 38, of Venice.

A person walks in mud.

Katya Lee walks through the mud at the Burning Man Festival.

(Katya Lee)

Rangers in military-style vehicles were traversing the open desert, directing those they saw on foot toward an exit, she said. But with the midafternoon rain, their march slowed to a crawl.

“It’s really slow with the mud piling up, you’re basically walking with 20 pounds on your feet,” Lee said. “It was getting dark. We saw two guys with bikes in the middle of nothingness, and they were not moving because it started to rain. It’s like, drop the bike and survive, or stay there alone at night in the mud getting cold.”

In all, they walked for about 3 hours before reaching a charter bus just as darkness fell.

Every seat on the bus was covered with black trash bags. They were transported by one bus, then transferred to another to Reno, where she and three friends shared a hotel room awaiting their return flights to L.A.

“This is why we walked out, because we knew if we stay we were not going to be able to get another flight,” she said. “Seventy-thousand people are trying to get home, and we’re going to L.A., which is a big hub. I really wanted to stay, I didn’t want to abandon everyone, but it was smart to go.”

She’ll be back. But she worried about others who were less prepared.

“I’m just thinking of virgins who got there for the first time and this is their experience,” Lee said. “People were losing it, and that scares everyone.”

First-time attendee Jillian Gleeson, 21, watched helplessly as another RV in her camp struggled to get out of the mud Sunday night, ultimately busting open its septic tank and spilling sewage everywhere.

“It’s definitely moop,” she said, using the festival acronym for “matter out of place,” or trash. She didn’t know what they were going to do about it, but thought they might end up physically bagging it and carrying it out by hand.

“If you leave a certain amount of moop, you get a fine, it affects your position on the playa and your moop score,” Gleeson said. “I know our camp for the past days has been cleaning up in the mud, trying to dig stuff up.”

Otherwise, there wasn’t much to do besides wait for the festival’s climactic event, the burning of the eponymous “Man,” scheduled for Monday night.

After that, she feared a free-for-all.

“I’m a little bit worried about the amount of people who are going to leave at once, because I know usually with Burning Man it’s sporadic … but I think this year people are more wanting to get out at the same time,” she said. “It’s probably going to take forever, and I really hope no one gets stuck because it will take even longer.”

Her shoes are ruined. Her group is running out of gas. And every passing hour, more people come to them looking for water and food.

“I’m pretty over it,” Gleeson said. “I’d like to leave.”

Another first-timer, David Marder, was also worried about the exodus as he surveyed the scene around him Sunday night. He said he saw the mood and the feeling change instantly with the rain, and worried morale could dip as conditions deteriorated.

“We really can’t drive out of here until it dries up,” Marder said. “It’s indescribably sticky. If you’re in boots or plastic bags it likes to stick to, you could have easily 10 pounds of mud. You can’t roll your bicycle in it. The mud sticks to the tires and then the braking mechanism and the frame. There’s cars I’ve seen that get stuck, a van. The poor guy is scraping the mud from between his tires.”

On Monday, organizers reminded attendees of the “leave no trace” principle at Burning Man, which means all participants are expected to take out everything they brought in and clean their camp space before leaving the city.

The Black Rock Desert received a half-inch to an inch of rain over the weekend, said Mark Deutschendorf, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Reno. “That’s a couple of months’ rain falling in one day,” he said.

People with enough supplies might stick around for the burning ceremony Monday night, but Deutschendorf anticipates long delays for people trying to leave.

“Even on a good year, it takes hours to get out of there,” he said.



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