Burning Man organizers lift driving ban after rain left event in mud

Sep 4, 2023, 8:00 PM | Updated: Sep 5, 2023, 11:05 pm

People walk off the playa out near the Burning Man site on the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada...

People walk off the playa out near the Burning Man site on the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada on Sunday. Photo credit: Jason Bean/RGJ/USA TODAY/Reuters

(CNN) — Hundreds of trucks, RVs and other vehicles are journeying out of the Burning Man festival grounds after heavy rains trapped tens of thousands of people in the makeshift city and surrounded them with ankle-deep mud too thick to drive in.

Event organizers officially lifted a driving ban Monday afternoon and said “exodus operations have officially begun in Black Rock City,” the city that’s erected annually for the event.

But even before that ban was officially lifted, thousands had already started the trek back home. Drone footage shot by CNN Monday morning showed hundreds of large vehicles lined up and making their way out.

Late Sunday evening, event organizers said there were 72,000 people on site and by midday Monday, roughly 64,000 people remained.

In a 2 p.m. update lifting the driving ban, event organizers said while conditions were improving and roads were drying, the site remained “muddy and may be difficult to navigate in some neighborhoods and down certain streets.”

“Take it slow and mind those directing traffic,” the update said. “Please be patient as you exit through Gate Road, and respect Burning Man staff who are working hard to make the Exodus experience as smooth and safe as possible.”

They also urged attendees to consider delaying their departure from the makeshift city to Tuesday to help prevent “large amounts of congestion.”

On Monday evening, it was taking vehicles roughly five hours and 30 minutes to leave the site, organizers said.

Roads leading in and out of Black Rock City were closed starting Friday night, and event organizers imposed shelter-in-place orders the following day. Attendees were told to conserve food, water and fuel after the deluge made it virtually impossible for vehicles to drive on the surface.

The remote area in northwest Nevada was hit with two to three months’ worth of rain – up to 0.8 inches – in just 24 hours between Friday and Saturday morning.

Sunny and dry conditions over western Nevada on Monday will allow “significant improvement to the muddy conditions at the Burning Man festival,” CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said. Temperatures were expected to hit a high of 75 degrees in the area.

The burning of the man – the huge totem set on fire at the festival’s culmination – was rescheduled from Sunday night to Monday because of the poor weather, organizers said Sunday evening.

One attendee weighs when to leave

Festivalgoers – accustomed to braving the Nevada desert’s extreme heat – instead contended with rain and mud over the weekend, rationing supplies and dealing with connectivity issues.

While some saw the heavy rain as a challenge that brought the camp communities closer, others worried about being able to get out in time to catch flights and return to other responsibilities.

When the mud trapped many at the site, attendees began offering food and shelter to those who needed it, festivalgoer Gillian Bergeron told CNN on Sunday.

“Most of the folks out there that go out somewhat regularly, they certainly made the best of it,” Bergeron said. “If anything, I think it probably made the core community stronger.”

Kaz Qamruddin, who attended the event, told CNN’s Brianna Keilar on Monday afternoon his camp was well organized, included both RVs and tents, and people helped each other during the heavy rain.

“As soon as the tents started getting water-logged or unlivable, people in RVs started taking in some of the tenters, so everybody was warm,” he said. Additionally, they cleared out some semi-trucks and shipping containers and people slept in there as well.

“We are a community that comes together in hard times,” he added.

Qamruddin said he decided to follow organizers’ instructions over the weekend and stay put, but other attendees panicked and decided to leave while the roads were still muddy and wet.

Some of those people got stuck and created heavier traffic for others, Qamruddin said.

He plans to leave after the burning of the man or Tuesday morning, he said.

“The problem is that this Monday is the mass exodus, so this is when the traffic will be the heaviest,” Qamruddin said. “So I’m going to wait and hopefully just be in line for a couple of hours before I head to Reno.”

Diplo and Chris Rock trudge, then hitchhike

Over the weekend, some elected to leave the site earlier than organizers recommended by plodding through the thick mud, but “most of the RVs” remained stuck in place, Pershing County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Nathan Carmichael said Sunday.

“Each step felt like we were walking with two big cinder blocks on our feet,” said Amar Singh Duggal, who managed to leave the festival with his friends after hiking about 2 miles in the mud.

Among those who trekked through the sludge was DJ Diplo, who spent hours hiking in the mud to try to get to his concert hours later in Washington, DC.

“I have some pretty strong leg muscles after that walk,” Diplo told CNN Monday morning. He credited duct tape and good boots that “were like three pounds each at one point” for helping him walk miles.

Then a fan offered Diplo – whose real name is Thomas Wesley Pentz – and comedian Chris Rock a ride.

“Some kid recognized me on the road and said, ‘Hey, I’ll give you a ride for the next two miles.’ And of course, we gladly took it.” Diplo said. He said he’s thanking the “awesome” young man with admission to shows.

A death at the festival is being investigated

death at the festival on Friday was “unrelated to the weather,” Burning Man organizers said Sunday night.

“Our emergency services department reached a call for service extremely quickly for a male, approximately 40 years old, and could not resuscitate the patient,” organizers said, without giving further details.

The Pershing County Sheriff’s Office said it is investigating the death.

We want to hear from you.

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Burning Man organizers lift driving ban after rain left event in mud