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Burning Man festival organizers lift driving ban and allow people to leave

In this image from video provided by Rebecca Barger, festival-goers are helped off a truck from the Burning Man festival site in Black Rock, Nev., on Monday, Sept. 4, 2023.
Rebecca Barger
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AP
In this image from video provided by Rebecca Barger, festival-goers are helped off a truck from the Burning Man festival site in Black Rock, Nev., on Monday, Sept. 4, 2023.

Updated September 5, 2023 at 12:11 AM ET

Organizers of the annual Burning Man music and arts festival lifted a driving ban on Monday afternoon as muddy roads that had stranded thousands of attendees in the Nevada desert had dried up enough to allow people to begin leaving.

"Exodus operations have officially begun in Black Rock City," organizers posted at 2 p.m. local time. Organizers also asked attendees not to walk out of the Black Rock Desert. The site of the festival is remotely located in northern Nevada, about 120 miles north of Reno.

On Sunday, attendees had been stranded after storms turned Nevada's Black Rock Desert playa into a mud bath. Close to an inch of precipitation flooded the area starting on Friday, prompting event organizers to close access to the festival until vehicles could safely pass and to warn campers to conserve food and water.

Despite reports of stuck vehicles, overflowing port-a-potties, postponed bus pickups and spotty Wi-Fi service, several attendees who spoke to NPR say the wet weather hadn't dampened moods.

"We're pooling all our food as far as resources. And I would say honestly, walking around the city, spirits are pretty high," attendee Anya Kamenetz said on Sunday.

The challenging conditions are testing a community of so-called burners, which touts self-reliance and communal effort among its core principles.

Event volunteer Josh Lease said that in true Burning Man spirit, people are sharing warm clothes and phone chargers where they can — and music is blaring.

"It's like any other Burning Man, just muddy," he told NPR on Saturday evening.

Camps are set on a muddy desert plain on Saturday after heavy rains turned the annual Burning Man festival site in Nevada's Black Rock desert into a mud pit.
Julie Jammot / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Camps are set on a muddy desert plain on Saturday after heavy rains turned the annual Burning Man festival site in Nevada's Black Rock desert into a mud pit.

"The warnings do sound very dire, and of course, the organization has to tell people to take care," said Claudia Peschiutta, an editor with NPR's Morning Edition who attended the event, but "I haven't seen one person who seems worried about it at all."

Some frustration, however, started to seep in for some attendees by Sunday.

In rainy Burning Mans past, longtime burner Joe Bamberg said he's seen couches, carpets and clothes eventually dry out. But this time, he said, "all is damp and will be ruined by mold," he said.

"I am not thrilled," said Bamberg, who added: "People make do, it is part of the adventure."

Meanwhile, authorities in Nevada were investigating a death at the site. The Pershing County Sheriff's Office said on Saturday that a person died during the event but offered few details, including whether the death was weather-related, KNSD-TV reported.

The muck is expected to dry up starting Monday, which is forecast to see clear skies, promising long waits in traffic during the exodus on the final day of the annual event. But event organizers have yet to give an estimate of when gates will open to cars.

Attendees are urged to shelter in place

The Burning Man Organization had begun telling attendees to shelter in place on Saturday, when it announced that access into and out of the site was closed for the remainder of the event, which runs from Aug. 27 through Sep. 4. Only emergency vehicles were allowed to pass, the organization said in a statement.

"Conserve food, water, and fuel, and shelter in a warm, safe space," the statement urged those stuck in the desert.

Although they urged attendees against driving on Sunday, event officials said that some vehicles designed for off-road terrain had been able to navigate the mud and successfully leave the event.

Other attendees chose to walk several miles across the muck to exit the grounds.

The Burning Man Organization advised people not to make the foot journey at night.

Burning Man attendee Josh Lease climbed on top of his camp's trailer to take a photo of the rainbow that emerged after heavy rains brought muddy grounds at the Black Rock City playa on Saturday.
/ Josh Lease
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Josh Lease
Burning Man attendee Josh Lease climbed on top of his camp's trailer to take a photo of the rainbow that emerged after heavy rains brought muddy grounds at the Black Rock City playa on Saturday.

"Make sure you have water and the strength to walk as much as 5 miles through the mud," the nonprofit said. "This isn't a simple solution, but it is a possible one should you need or want to make the trek."

Music producer Diplo said he and comedian Chris Rock escaped the event on Saturday after walking 6 miles before hitching a ride from a fan in a pickup truck.

"I legit walked the side of the road for hours with my thumb out cuz I have a show in dc tonight and didnt want to let yall down," he wrote in an Instagram post.

Neal Katyal, former acting Obama-era solicitor general, also made the trek out. He said he was safe after his first trip to the festival ended with "an incredibly harrowing 6-mile hike at midnight through heavy and slippery mud."

President Biden had been briefed on the situation, according to a White House official. Event attendees were told over the weekend to listen to state and local officials, and event organizers, the administration official said.

Attendees walk through a muddy desert plain on Saturday, after heavy rains turned the annual Burning Man festival site in Nevada's Black Rock desert into a mud pit.
Julie Jammot / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Attendees walk through a muddy desert plain on Saturday, after heavy rains turned the annual Burning Man festival site in Nevada's Black Rock desert into a mud pit.

The conditions put Burning Man community spirit to the test

"We have come here knowing this is a place where we bring everything we need to survive," the organization said in a statement on Saturday night. "It is because of this that we are all well-prepared for a weather event like this."

"We have done table-top 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."

Organizers said they would send mobile cell trailers and open up the internet to multiple areas throughout the desert playa, as well as try to help transport buses out of the area. "Get some rest and spend some quality time with your campmates," the festival said in the Saturday night statement. "We will all get out of this, it will just take time."

Attendee Bobby White, who hosts the TV series Sailing Doodles, squelched through the mud against a backdrop of gunmetal skies and soggy tents in a YouTube video posted Saturday.

"Every time you step, you pick up more mud and it's just really hard to move," White said.

With the gates closed, service vehicles on Saturday weren't able to reach the port-a-potties in a timely manner to empty the waste, causing toilets to overflow, attendee Kris Edwards said in a video posted to TikTok. Video posted to social media on Sunday afternoon showed people cheering upon the arrival of a sanitation service vehicle.

The aftermath of the downpour is seen near campsites at Black Rock City.
/ Josh Lease
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Josh Lease
The aftermath of the downpour is seen near campsites at Black Rock City.

The weather forced the postponement of some art installation burns, including the burning of the namesake wooden-man effigy, a ritual that traditionally happens on Saturday night.

This isn't the first time the entrance was blocked at this year's festival.

A group of climate protesters caused miles of gridlock after parking a 28-foot trailer in the way at the start of the event.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.
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