1 death under investigation as thousands at Burning Man festival confined in desert, authorities say

ByNouran Salahieh and Emma Tucker, CNNWire
Sunday, September 3, 2023
1 death reported, Burning Man attendees stuck in desert: authorities
One was death reported as Burning Man festivalgoers in the Nevada desert are being told to conserve food and water as they shelter in place.

As thousands of people remain unable to leave the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert after heavy rains inundated their campsites with ankle-deep mud Saturday, authorities say they are investigating a death at the event.

Attendees were told to shelter in place in the Black Rock Desert and conserve food, water and fuel after a rainstorm swamped the area, forcing officials to halt any entering or leaving of the festival.

Burning Man organizers created a survival guide Sunday for festivalgoers that they said will be updated regularly as conditions change.

The remote area in northwest Nevada was hit with 2 to 3 months worth of rain - up to 0.8 inches - in just 24 hours between Friday and Saturday mornings. The heavy rainfall fell on dry desert grounds, whipping up thick, clay-like mud that festivalgoers say is too difficult to walk or bike through.

"More rain is expected over the next few days and conditions are not expected to improve enough to allow vehicles to enter the playa," the Bureau of Land Management said in a statement obtained by the Reno Gazette Journal.

The Pershing County Sheriff's Office said it's investigating "a death which occurred during this rain event." Authorities did not publicly name the person or provide details on the circumstances of the death.

"The family has been notified and the death is under investigation," the sheriff's office said in a late Saturday news release.

Authorities have not provided information on when roads could reopen, but the sunshine is expected to return Monday after more showers Sunday.

"We do not currently have an estimated time for the roads to be dry enough for RVs or vehicles to navigate safely," Burning Man organizers said in a Saturday evening statement. "Monday late in the day would be possible if weather conditions are in our favor. It could be sooner."

Organizers did note that the rain falling on an already saturated playa overnight and Sunday "will affect the amount of time it takes for the playa to dry."

For now, the gate and airport into Black Rock City remain closed and no driving is allowed into or out of the city except for emergency vehicles, the organizers said on social media. Black Rock City is a temporary metropolis that is erected annually for the festival and comes complete with emergency, safety and sanitary infrastructure.

The rain "made it virtually impossible for motorized vehicles to traverse the playa," the Pershing County Sheriff's Office said, noting that people were advised to shelter in place until the ground has dried enough to drive on safely.

Vehicles trying to drive out will get stuck in the mud, Burning Man organizers said Saturday. "It will hamper Exodus if we have cars stuck on roads in our camping areas, or on the Gate Road out of the city," the organizers added.

"If you are in BRC, please shelter in place & stay safe," organizers said.

Difficult conditions, but some stay positive

Some festival-goers hiked miles on foot in the thick mud to reach main roads while others stayed at their camps, hoping for conditions to improve.

Hannah Burhorn, a first-time attendee at the festival, told CNN people were trudging through the mud barefoot or with bags tied around their feet.

"People who have tried to bike through it and have gotten stuck because it's about ankle deep," Burhorn said. The mud is so thick that it "sticks to your shoes and makes it almost like a boot around your boot," she added.

It's unclear exactly how many people are stranded at the festival, but typically more than 70,000 people attend the weeklong event. It's being held from August 28 to September 4 this year.

There weren't any reports of injuries as of Saturday afternoon, Sean Burke, the director of emergency management for Pershing County, told CNN.

Amar Singh Duggal and his friends managed to leave the festival after hiking about 2 miles in the mud, he told CNN. He estimated it took them about 2 hours to get to a main road where they arranged to be picked up and taken to Reno, about a 120-mile drive from the event grounds.

"We made it, but it was pure hell (walking) through the mud," Duggal said. "Each step felt like we were walking with two big cinderblocks on our feet."

Meanwhile, attendees who typically dedicate their time to making art and building community are now also focused on rationing supplies and dealing with connectivity issues.

"There is super limited bandwidth and a lot of people at the camp (are) trying to cancel flights and arrange for extended time here" due to the weather, Burhorn told CNN via text message from a Wi-Fi camp.

Still, the poor conditions have not stopped the creativity, said Burhorn, who had traveled from San Francisco.

"People are building mud sculptures," she said.

Andrew Hyde, another attendee stuck at the Burning Man, said that despite the muddy conditions making it difficult to walk, the weather has taken the meaning of the event back to its roots.

"You come out here to be in a harsh climate, and you prepare for that," Hyde told CNN's Paula Newton. "So in many ways, everybody here just kind of made friends with their neighbors and it's a community event."

Morale at the event is OK and there's generally no panic among the attendees, Hyde said, describing music returning overnight.

There are worries about the additional rain causing delays, however, and the unknowns of worsening conditions.

"I think the concern is if we have another rain," he said. "People need to go back to their jobs, back to the responsibilities they have back home."

Assistance brought in

Organizers announced Saturday night they'll be putting mobile cell trailers in different positions, configuring the organization's Wi-Fi system for public access and deploying buses to nearby Gerlach to take people who might walk off the playa to Reno.

"This is not likely a 24-hour operation at this time," the festival said in a statement on its website.

Organizers are also resourcing four-wheel drive vehicles and all-terrain tires to help ferry medical and other urgent situations to the blacktop.

There have been people who managed to walk to a main road and were waiting for transport from the festival organizers Saturday night, the Pershing County Sheriff's Office said.

Resources have been brought in from around northern Nevada to help people with medical needs on the event grounds, the sheriff's office said.

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

"We have done table-top drills for events like this," organizers added. "We are engaged full-time on all aspects of safety and looking ahead to our Exodus as our next priority."

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