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Many are now leaving the site according to officials. AP
Black Rock Desert

'Harrowing' conditions and flooding strand tens of thousands at Burning Man festival site

One death is being investigated at the counterculture festival in Nevada.

TENS OF THOUSANDS of partygoers at the Burning Man festival in the northern Nevada desert are stuck in mud a foot deep in places with no working toilets following an unusual late-summer storm.

Organisers closed the festival to vehicles after one death was reported, with officials yet to provide details on the fatality.

The annual gathering in the Black Rock Desert about 110 miles north of Reno attracts nearly 80,000 artists, musicians and activists for a mix of wilderness camping and avant-garde performances.

Disruptions are part of the event’s recent history. Organisers had to temporarily close entrances to the festival in 2018 due to dust storms, and the event was twice cancelled altogether during the pandemic.

More than half an inch of rain and possibly close to one inch fell this weekend in parts of north-west Nevada, which includes the area where the Burning Man festival was being held, according to the US National Weather Service in Reno.

Fear set in among some attendees desperate to flee the muddy site.

“I got scared with what happens when so many people run out of toilet paper and water and food, so I felt I had to get out,” Pascale Brand, a 40-year-old who arrived from the Netherlands, told AFP.

Brand said she had been “crying a lot,” before deciding on Sunday that “I am leaving no matter what.”

She got a seat in a neighbor’s vehicle and they made it down a muddy road without any problems.

“There were people yelling at you, ‘You can’t leave… Go back! The gates are closed,’” she said, but the vehicle made it past an unmanned gate, and to a paved road.

“I felt like I was breaking out of something,” Brand said.

Others made the strenuous journey on foot.

“It was an incredibly harrowing six-mile (10 kilometer) hike at midnight through heavy and slippery mud, but I got safely out,” lawyer Neal Katyal said on social media. 

For the Reno area, which is about 141 miles south of the festival, the average rainfall for the whole month of September would be just 0.21in, meteorologist Mark Deutschendorf said.

He added: “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.”

Rainfall for the area around the festival was ending on Sunday, he said.

The road closures came just before a large wooden effigy was supposed to have been burned on Saturday night. Organisers said that all burning had been postponed, and authorities are working to open exit routes by the end of the Labour Day weekend.

Officials said late on Saturday they did not yet know when the roads would “be dry enough for RVs or vehicles to navigate safely”, but they were hopeful vehicles could depart by late on Monday if weather conditions improved.

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

With their party closed to motorized traffic, attendees trudged through mud, many barefoot or with plastic bags on their feet. Revellers were urged to conserve supplies of food and water, and most remained hunkered down at the site.

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

Celebrity DJ Diplo posted a video to Instagram on Saturday evening showing him and comedian Chris Rock riding in the back of a fan’s pickup truck. He said they had walked six 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.

The event is remote on the best of days and emphasises self-sufficiency – meaning most people bring in their own food, water and other supplies.

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

“We have not witnessed any negativity, any rough times,” organiser Theresa Galeani said. “Some people … were supposed to leave a few days ago, so they’re out of water or food. But I am an organiser, so I went around and found more water and food. There is more than enough here for people. We just have to get it to everyone.”

Ed Fletcher of Sacramento, a long-time Burning Man attendee, arrived in Black Rock City over a week ago to start setting up. When the rain hit, he and his campmates threw a party and “danced the night away” in their muddy shoes.

“Radical self-reliance is one of the principles of Burning Man,” he said. “The desert will try to kill you in some way, shape or form.”

On their website, organisers encouraged participants to remain calm and suggested that the festival is built to endure conditions like the flooding.

They said mobile phone trailers were being dropped in several locations on Saturday night and that they would be briefly opening up internet access overnight. Shuttle buses are also being organised to take attendees to Reno from the nearest town of Gerlach, a walk of about five miles from the site.

The event began on August 27 and was scheduled to end on Monday, according to the US Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Black Rock Desert, where the festival was held.

John Asselin, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, said he had seen “a steady stream” of vehicles leaving the festival site.

“People are getting out,” he said.

With reporting by AFP

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