Burning Man Aftermath: Local Sheriff Says Festival’s ‘Principles’ Were Ignored


In the aftermath, a local sheriff complained that festivalgoers were not living up to their core principles of community, responsibility and “leaving no trace.” Now comes the cleanup.

As thousands of people left the Burning Man festival in the remote Nevada desert, a local sheriff complained that they were “lashing out at each other” and leaving behind an unusually large amount of trash, including vehicles abandoned in the mud.

The mass exodus began Monday and continued into Tuesday after the main road to the festival site reopened, allowing attendees to begin the trek home. Heavy rain had made the road impassable, stranding people over the weekend in the festival site known as Black Rock City. Some walked out on foot.

The festival’s main event, the burning of a towering humanlike sculpture, was postponed twice before finally taking place on Monday night.

Now comes the cleanup. And that had already become a sore point for one local official.

Sheriff Jerry Allen of Pershing County, Nevada, where the festival is held every year, said that while attendees usually leave large amounts of trash “into Reno and points beyond,” the mess this year was worse.

“This year is a little different in that there are numerous vehicles strewn all throughout the playa for several miles,” Sheriff Allen wrote in an email to The San Francisco Chronicle as the exodus started on Monday. The playa is the normally dusty desert expanse that turned into thick mud after an unusual amount of rain. The sheriff sent a copy of his remarks to The New York Times on Tuesday.

“Some participants were unwilling to wait or use the beaten path to attempt to leave the desert,” he wrote, “and have had to abandon their vehicles and personal property wherever their vehicle came to rest.”

He said that Burning Man organizers were responsible for removing the debris, which in the past has been dumped at businesses along the exit route, overwhelming them.

Sheriff Allen also said that attendees leaving Burning Man were “angry” and “not showing compassion to their fellow man.”

“As usually happens in what burners refer to as the ‘default world’ people allow their emotions to override their reasonableness and they are lashing out at each other as they leave the playa and attempt to make it to their next destination,” he said. “This behavior definitely does not fall within the 10 principles of Burning Man, but that is not the fault of B.M.P. either, but is a societal issue.”

(B.M.P. refers to the Burning Man Project, the nonprofit that organizes the festival.)

The 10 Principles of Burning Man, enshrined in 2004, include, “participation,” “civic responsibility,” “communal effort,” and “leaving no trace,” which means, “we clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them,” according to the festival website.

Festival organizers did not immediately respond on Tuesday to an email seeking comment.

Sheriff Allen also dismissed rumors that the Ebola virus was spreading at Burning Man, saying, “there is no validity to any reports regarding an Ebola outbreak, or any other disease.”

The festival had one reported fatality. The sheriff’s office said Tuesday that Leon Reece, 32, had died on Friday, and that a cause of death has not been determined. Deputies had responded after a call reported that medical personnel were administering C.P.R. to a man who was on the ground and unresponsive, the office said.

Burning Man Aftermath: Local Sheriff Says Festival’s ‘Principles’ Were Ignored
Heavy rain and mud had stranded thousands of attendees on the remote festival grounds in Nevada for days.Matt Mills Mcknight/Reuters

The festival traces its roots to 1986, when Larry Harvey and Jerry James built a human effigy and burned it on a San Francisco beach.

In the 1990s, Burning Man moved to Black Rock City, a temporary community created in the middle of the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada.

Tickets cost $575 and more than 70,000 people travel from around the world to the desolate, arid site, more than 100 miles from Reno, Nev. Those people typically have to contend with fine dust, not mud and rain.

To get to Burning Man, people must either travel the two-lane rural highway that leads to the festival’s gate or fly into its small, temporary airport.

The rain prompted the closure of the route in and out of Burning Man, but the event’s organizers reopened the road at midday Monday, though some travelers were still getting stuck on the long trek out. Even in normal years, leaving the site can take up to 12 hours, as thousands of vehicles creep across the desert and onto the road; early Tuesday, the wait was estimated to be about eight hours.

The muddy conditions also obstructed the ability of event organizers to move heavy equipment, including for fire safety, to the site of the climactic Man Burn, which was twice postponed, according to a social media account affiliated with The Burning Man Project. The festival’s namesake wooden effigy was eventually burned on Monday night.

For the most part, they walked, drove an alternate route off-road or hitched a ride. In a social media post, Diplo, the D.J. and producer, said he and Chris Rock had “walked 5 miles in the mud” to get out.

Orlando Mayorquin, Derrick Bryson Taylor and Remy Tumin contributed reporting.


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