What really happened at Burning Man 2023?

On Friday, heavy rain disrupted Burning Man, with 2-3 month’s worth of rain falling in just 24 hours.

What really happened at Burning Man 2023?
Dub Kitty and Ben Joos, of Idaho and Nevada, walk through the mud at Burning Man after a night of dancing with friends in Black Rock City, in the Nevada desert, after a rainstorm turned the site into mud September 2, 2023. Trevor Hughes/USA TODAY NETWORK via REUTERS

The backstory: Burning Man 2023 has been grabbing headlines the past few days. So, what happened? This event traces its roots back to 1986, getting its name from the grand spectacle of burning a colossal wooden structure known as "the Man." Think of it as a blend of counterculture celebration and spiritual retreat. People who attend this event are known as "burners." They roll in as groups, setting up themed "camps." It’s not like a music festival where there are scheduled headliners. Instead, all the participants design and build out all the art, events and activities themselves. This year’s burn was set to run from August 27 to September 4 in Black Rock City, a temporary setup in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. This time, the desert got an unexpected nickname, "wet playa," due to an unusual occurrence – heavy rainfall.

On Friday, heavy rain disrupted Burning Man, with 2-3 month’s worth of rain falling in just 24 hours, leaving burners hunkered down in a wet, muddy sludge. This led to road closures just before the planned lighting of the iconic wooden structure on Saturday night. In another headline-grabbing twist, tragically, a man in his 40s passed away at the event, though the cause is under investigation, with organizers saying it wasn't weather-related.

More recently: The unexpected rainfall forced event organizers to make some quick decisions. They hit the brakes on driving within Black Rock City, meaning no one could come or go. Attendees were urged to "shelter in place" and conserve essential supplies like food and water. The remote part of northwest Nevada experienced 2 centimeters (0.8 centimeters) of rain between Friday and Saturday morning. Also, Black Rock City's ground is mainly desert clay, which doesn't absorb water like other soils. So, it posed a real challenge, leaving more than 70,000 festival-goers stuck in the mud, waiting for the Nevada desert to dry up.

The development: The real breakthrough came on Monday afternoon when the organizers officially gave the green light for people to leave Black Rock City. They stated, "Exodus operations have officially begun." Organizers recommended that attendees hold off on departing until Tuesday to avoid a massive traffic jam. The wait to get out was around seven hours, even on Monday night.

Some early birds, like DJ Diplo and other celebs like Chris Rock, decided to walk through the muddy desert on Saturday morning to find a way out by hitchhiking. Out of the 72,000 people still on site late Sunday evening, roughly 64,000 were still there by midday on Monday. They heeded the officials' advice, patiently waiting for the grand finale – the burning of the Man, which was finally blazed up on Monday night.

Key comments:

“Burning Man is a community of people who are prepared to support one another. We have come here knowing this is a place where we bring everything we need to survive,” said the organizers in a statement. “It is because of this that we are all well-prepared for a weather event like this.”

“Just walked 5 miles in the mud out of burning man with chris rock and a fan picked us up,” said Diplo on X, whose real name is Thomas Wesley Pentz.

“Everyone has just adapted, sharing RVs for sleeping, offering food and coffee,” said Rebecca Barger, an attendee of Burning Man, to The Guardian. “I danced in foot-deep clay for hours to incredible DJs.”