Burning Man effigy to fire up but abandoned sites create cleaning headache

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The ceremonial burning of a 23-metre effigy at Nevada’s Burning Man festival has been given the green light after dismal weather soaked the desert landscape, prompting some to leave on foot and others to revel in the mud.

Black Rock City, the remote area of north-west Nevada where the event is held in the US, was closed over the weekend to all but emergency vehicles after heavy rain pummelled the makeshift city of 70,000 festivalgoers from across the world.

Sydney digital creator Lila Neiswanger at Burning Man for the second time.

The nine-day counterculture celebration, which has been running for almost four decades, was hit by wet weather in its final days, cutting road access and delaying the grand finale burning of The Man, a giant wooden effigy, and The Chapel of Babel, a hexagonal wooden structure.

Attendees had earlier been asked to take shelter and conserve food, water and fuel, but some chose to leave the festival grounds, known as the “playa” (beach), on foot to seek alternative transport to reach pre-booked flights.

While reports of festivalgoers being stranded with depleting food and water supplies, and the death of one attendee, have dominated global headlines, some revellers on site feel they have been overblown.

“I find it frustrating that there seems to be a push to paint this as another Fyre Festival or Woodstock 99,” said Lila Neiswanger, who is attending the festival for the second time.

The Sydney-based digital creator has been at Black Rock City since last week when she began setting up a camp that has been home to about 100 people including five Australians.

Festivalgoers setting up the Alborz camp for about 100 people, including five Australians.Credit: Lila Neiswanger

“I’m sure my experience with my camp isn’t the only experience that people are having right now. Burning Man is huge, so I can’t know what’s happening on the other side of the playa. But the ‘people are trapped, everything is terrible’ is definitely overblown,” she said.

“They are just encouraging people to wait until the roads are less muddy, since they can’t really get cars unstuck. Food and water supplies are fine … Burners are very keen on helping each other in any kind of crisis.” (Regular attendees to the festival adopt the “burner” moniker.)

The Burning Man festival site last week before the rain hit.Credit: Maxar Technologies

Other Australians who have taken to social media to post about the muddy playa include Australian Idol winner Casey Donovan, who remained positive about the conditions despite patchy internet connections.

“We are safe, we have food and ‘dryish’ shelter. It is very moist here and forecast is for more rain over the next few days … fingers and toes crossed for some sunshine to clear things up,” she posted on Instagram.

Organisers on Sunday evening, Nevada time, said conditions were improving and they planned to reopen roads for people to leave on Monday, adding that a decision would be made at 9am.

“The Burning Man organisation’s advice is for participants to delay their departures to avoid getting stuck in the mud, but people are free to leave should they choose to do so,” the website states.

Blue skies return to Black Rock City after heavy rains turned the desert playground into a mud pit.Credit: Lila Neiswanger

The festival began in 1986 and is best known for its concluding event, in which a giant, humanesque sculpture is set alight. The effigy this year is said to weigh more than one tonne.

Burning Man attracts tens of thousands of people each year, from ordinary partygoers and emerging artists, DJs and performers, to celebrities and influencers.

Central to the ethos of the event is a number of principles attendees must observe, including that people borrow, gift and trade instead of exchanging money. Along with a “leave no trace” policy, this creates a self-sustaining community that is dismantled at the end of the event.

However, given the large number of people left on foot because they were unwilling to persist through the muddy conditions, there are concerns about multiple campsites, rubbish and waste being left behind.

Festival attendee David Date said many who had abandoned the festival had left makeshift camps behind.

“We’ve experienced hardships in the past. The one thing that is unique this time is that we have this influx of ‘tech bros’ and Instagram models and European and Australian tourists, and they’re ditching their camps, leaving tons [of waste] all over the playa,” he told Nine’s Today show. (Nine Entertainment Co owns this masthead.)

“This could threaten the existence of this event. So, right now we’re trying to figure out how to clean up other people’s mess.”

Burning Man routinely faces criticism for the environmental impact of creating a temporary city for tens of thousands of people. This year, a small group of climate protesters caused gridlock by blocking the road with a trailer and calling for an end to the annual desert party.

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