What is Burning Man? All you need to know about the festival and floods

Tens of thousands of partygoers are stuck in mud as rare desert rain inundated parts of the western US state of Nevada.

An unusual late-summer storm has turned a weeklong, counterculture festival in the western United States into a sloppy mess.

About 70,000 Burning Man partygoers got stuck in deep mud in the northern Nevada desert amid dwindling water and food supplies.

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But Burning Man organisers reopened the road leading out of the remote Nevada desert festival on Monday, allowing tens of thousands of people to escape the rain-drenched festival site.

“Exodus operations have officially begun in Black Rock City,” the festival’s website announced on Monday afternoon. “The driving ban has been lifted.”

Many of the 64,000 people who remained on site are expected to stay for the festival’s namesake effigy to go up in flames, an event slated for Monday night at 9pm (04:00 GMT Tuesday) — one day past schedule.

Here is what to know:

What is Burning Man?

Burning Man is a festival described as “a global ecosystem of artists, makers, and community organisers who co-create art, events, and local initiatives around the world”.

The festival gets its name from its culminating event, the burning of a large wooden structure called “the Man” on the penultimate night. It aims to be an undefinable event, somewhere between a celebration of counterculture and a spiritual retreat.

Festival goers sitting in camp chairs looking out at the Burning Man site. They are dressed in red, green and yellow onesies.
Some festival-goers decided to sit it out at the muddy site with the Burning Man’s effigy due to go up in flames on Monday night [Julie Jammot/AFP]

During the event, “burners” typically arrive in groups and set up themed “camps”, ready to contribute to the festival’s “gift economy” by providing goods or services without the expectation of receiving anything in return.

The event has been held since 1986.

This year, it was scheduled to run from August 27 until September 4, and a regular ticket cost $575. However, the news channel CNBC estimated the experience could set festival-goers back as much as $1,500, if lodging, travel, food and costumes were factored in.

Where is the Burning Man festival happening?

The festival is held in Black Rock City, a temporary community created in the middle of the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada.

Its location is far from big cities and about 227km (141 miles) north of Reno. During the festival, participants often refer to the area as the “playa” — though this year, it has been rebaptised “wet playa”.

What went wrong this year?

More than 13mm (0.5 inches) of rain fell at the festival site on Friday, disrupting the celebration.

For the Reno area, the average rainfall for the whole month of September would be 5.4mm (0.21 inches), said Mark Deutschendorf, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the city.

“Already, everywhere from Reno up to the Burning Man area, Black Rock, we’ve already exceeded that – and it’s only three days into the month,” he added.

In this satellite photo provided by Maxar Technologies, an overview of Burning Man festival in Black Rock
An overview of the Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nevada [Maxar Technologies via AP]

Road closures were imposed just before the festival’s giant wooden effigy was supposed to have been burned on Saturday night. Organisers said all burning had been postponed, and authorities were working to open exit routes by the end of the Labor Day weekend.

In addition, one death at the festival was reported. Officials in Pershing County said the man was in his 40s, but a cause of death was not released. An investigation is underway.

Burning Man organisers said the death was “unrelated to the weather”.

What’s Burning Man’s policy on cars?

Since 1997, Burning Man has largely prohibited festival-goers from using cars and trucks during the event, except in special circumstances.

Visitors can use their cars to arrive to their camps and depart — but must otherwise avoid motor vehicles during the festival itself.

Black Rock City bills itself as primarily “for pedestrians and bicyclists”, with the exception of staff and service cars, as well as the artistic “mutant vehicles” that patrol the festival grounds.

“Over the years, we have seen severe injuries and even death due to vehicle-related accidents,” the festival’s website explains.

This year’s rain also caused organisers to close roads in and out of the festival, leaving many participants stranded.

Black Rock City - Nevada

How are people getting out?

With the festival closed to motorised traffic, attendees trudged through mud, many barefoot or with plastic bags on their feet. Organisers on Monday discouraged pedestrians from trying to reach County Road 34, due to heavy traffic from the “exodus”.

Revellers were also urged to conserve supplies of food and water, and most remained hunkered down at the site.

A few, however, managed to walk out to the nearest town or catch a ride there.

Celebrity DJ Diplo posted a video to Instagram on Saturday showing him and comedian Chris Rock riding in the back of a fan’s pick-up truck. He said they walked 10km (6 miles) through the mud before hitching a ride.

“I legit walked the side of the road for hours with my thumb out,” wrote Diplo, whose real name is Thomas Wesley Pentz.

What happened to those stranded?

Those who remain described a resilient community making the most of the mucky conditions. Many posted selfies covered in mud, dancing or splashing in the makeshift lakes.

“We have not witnessed any negativity, any rough times,” organiser Theresa Galeani said.

What happens next?

Some attendees told the Reuters news agency that a steady stream of vehicles have left since predawn, many struggling through the rain-fuelled slop.

The exit is via an unpaved, 8km (five-mile) dirt road out to the nearest highway. Photos shared online showed hefty recreational vehicles sunk up to the tyre rims in mud, with some using boards under the wheels to help get traction.

Organisers urged partygoers to consider leaving on Tuesday to “alleviate large amounts of congestion” expected on Monday.

View of the muddy terrain during the Burning Man event at the temporary desert settlement of Black Rock City, Nevada
The muddy terrain during the Burning Man event at the temporary desert settlement of Black Rock City, Nevada [File: Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies