Burning Man revellers begin exodus after flooding left tens of thousands stranded in Nevada desert

Event organisers said they started to let traffic flow out of the main road around 2pm local time - even as they continued urging attendees to delay their exit to help ease traffic on Monday.

About two hours after the mass departure began, organizers estimated a wait time of about five hours.

Organisers also asked attendees not to walk out of the Black Rock Desert, about 177 kilometres north of Reno, as others had done throughout the weekend, including celebrity DJ Diplo and comedian Chris Rock. They didn't specify why.

AP/Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies.
This photo, provided by Maxar Technologies, shows an overview of the center camp at the Burning Man festival on Monday, Sept. 4, 2023, in the Black Rock Desert north of Reno. - AP/Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies.

The festival had been closed to vehicles after more than 1.3 centimetres of rain fell Friday, causing flooding and foot-deep mud.

The road closures came just before the first of two ceremonial fires signaling an end to the festival was scheduled to begin Saturday night. The event traditionally culminates with the burning of a large wooden effigy shaped like a man and a wood temple structure during the final two nights, but the fires were postponed as authorities worked to reopen exit routes by the end of the Labor Day weekend.

Weather permitting, "The Man” is scheduled to be torched 9pm Monday while the temple is set to go up in flames 8pm Tuesday.

The National Weather Service in Reno said it should stay mostly clear and dry at the festival site Monday, although some light rain showers could pass through Tuesday morning. The event began Aug. 27 and had been scheduled to end Monday morning, with attendees packing up and cleaning up after themselves.

“We are a little bit dirty and muddy, but spirits are high. The party still going,” said Scott London, a Southern California photographer, adding that the travel limitations offered “a view of Burning Man that a lot of us don’t get to see.”

The annual gathering, which launched on a San Francisco beach in 1986, 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: Dust storms forced organizers to temporarily close entrances to the festival in 2018, and the event was twice cancelled altogether during the pandemic.

Rebecca Barger/Rebecca Barger
In this image from video provided by Rebecca Barger, people walk through mud at the Burning Man festival site in Black Rock, Nev., on Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. - Rebecca Barger/Rebecca Barger

At least one fatality has been reported, but organizers said the death of a man in his 40s wasn't weather-related. The sheriff of nearby Pershing County said he was investigating but has not identified the man or a cause of death.

President Joe Biden told reporters in Delaware on Sunday that he was aware of the situation at Burning Man, including the death, and the White House was in touch with local authorities.

The event is remote on the best of days and emphasizes self-sufficiency. Amid the flooding, revellers were urged to conserve their food and water, and most remained hunkered down at the site.

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

Diplo, whose real name is Thomas Wesley Pentz, posted a video to Instagram on Saturday evening showing him and 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,” Diplo wrote.

Cindy Bishop and three of her friends managed to drive their rented RV out of the festival at dawn on Monday when, Bishop said, the main road wasn’t being guarded.

Rebecca Barger/Rebecca Barger
In this image from video provided by Rebecca Barger, people walk along a muddy path at the Burning Man festival site in Black Rock, Nev., on Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. - Rebecca Barger/Rebecca Barger

She said they were happy to make it out after driving toward the exit - and getting stuck several times - over the course of two days.

But Bishop, who travelled from Boston for her second Burning Man, said spirits were still high at the festival when they had left. Most people she spoke with said they planned to stay for the ceremonial burns.

“The spirit in there,” she said, “was really like, ‘We’re going to take care of each other and make the best of it.’”

Rebecca Barger, a photographer from Philadelphia, arrived at her first Burning Man on 26 August and was determined to stick it out through the end.

“Everyone has just adapted, sharing RVs for sleeping, offering food and coffee,” Barger said. “I danced in foot-deep clay for hours to incredible DJs.”