Burning Man 2023: Death under investigation as flooding strands thousands

Tens of thousands of people gathered for the Burning Man festival remained stranded in the Nevada desert on Sunday after storms that swept through the area, as authorities investigated a possible death and worked to open exit paths by the end of the Labor Day weekend.

Organizers closed vehicular access to the counterculture festival and attendees trudged through mud, many barefoot or wearing plastic bags on their feet. The revelers were urged to shelter in place and conserve food, water and other supplies. Most remained hunkered down hoping roads open as early as Monday, though a few managed to walk several miles to the nearest town or catch a ride there.

Celebrity DJ Diplo posted a video to Instagram on Saturday evening showing him and comedian Chris 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," wrote Diplo, whose real name is Thomas Wesley Pentz.

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The counterculture gathering in the Black Rock Desert about 110 miles (177 kilometers) north of Reno typically attracts nearly 80,000 artists, musicians and activists who spend tens of millions of dollars in Nevada. Combining wilderness camping with avant-garde performances at a Mardi Gras-like celebration, the event typically goes for a week and emphasizes self-sufficiency — meaning most people bring in their own food, water and other supplies.

Disruptions are nothing new to the festival. Organizers had to temporary halt entrances to the festival in 2018 due to dust storms, and the event was twice canceled altogether during the pandemic.

Those who remained Sunday described a resilient community making the most of the muddy conditions that have made it difficult to walk or even bike around Burning Man. Many posted selfies of themselves covered in mud, dancing or splashing in the makeshift lakes.

"Honestly, we're having a great time," Theresa Galeani, who is at Burning Man and expected to be there for the rest of the week.

"We have not witnessed any negativity, any rough times," she said. "Some people … were supposed to leave a few days ago so they’re out of water or food. But I am an organizer so I went around and found more water and food. There is more than enough here for people. We just have to get it to everyone."

Scott London, a southern California photographer who was attending his 20th Burning Man and just came out with a book on the festival, "Burning Man: Art On Fire," spent much of Saturday walking barefoot across the five-square-mile site. He said the biggest challenge was logistics, since no vehicles could traverse the site and supplies cannot be brought into the site, and most people cannot leave.

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

"Usually it's very crowded with art cars, bikes and people all over the place but yesterday it was like an abandoned playground," he added.

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

"I’m not leaving until both ‘The Man’ and ‘The Temple’ burn," Barger said, referring to the wooden effigy and wooden structure that are traditionally torched during the event’s last two nights.

She said one of the biggest concerns has been the lack of toilet options since the trucks that normally arrive to clean out the portable toilets multiple times a day haven’t been able to reach the site since Friday’s rainstorm. Some revelers said trucks had resumed cleaning on Sunday.


FILE - This is a DigitalGlobe via Getty Images satellite image "overview" of the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock City Nevada in 2013. (DigitalGlobe via Getty Images via Getty Images)

To prevent her shoes from getting stuck in the muddy clay, Barger says she put a plastic bag over each of her shoes and then covered each bag with a sock. Others are just barefoot.

"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."

Ed Fletcher of Sacramento, a longtime Burning Man attendee, arrived in Black Rock City over a week ago to start setting up. When the rain hit, he and his campmates threw a party and "danced the night away" in their muddy shoes.

"Radical self-reliance is one of the principles of Burning Man," he said. "The desert will try to kill you in some way, shape or form."

The Pershing County Sheriff’s Office said a death happened during the event but offered few details as the investigation continued, including the identity of the deceased person or the suspected cause of death.

On their website, organizers encouraged participants to remain calm and suggest that the festival is built to endure conditions like the flooding. They said cellphone trailers were being dropped in several locations Saturday night and that they would be briefly opening up internet overnight. Shuttle buses were also being organized to take attendees to Reno from the nearest town of Gerlach, a walk of about five miles (eight kilometers) from the site.

"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," the organizers said in a statement. "It is because of this that we are all well-prepared for a weather event like this."

Vehicle gates will not open for the remainder of the event, which began on Aug. 27 and was scheduled to end Monday, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Black Rock Desert where the festival is being held.

John Asselin, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, urged people still heading to the festival to go home so the roads could remain for emergency and other vehicles. He said he has seen "a steady stream" of vehicles leaving the festival site.

"People are getting out," he said.


Camps are set on a muddy desert plain on September 2, 2023, after heavy rains turned the annual Burning Man festival site in Nevada's Black Rock desert into a mud pit. (JULIE JAMMOT/AFP via Getty Images)

More than one-half inch of rain is believed to have fallen on Friday at the festival site, the National Weather Service in Reno said. At least another quarter of an inch of rain is expected Sunday.

The Reno Gazette Journal reported organizers started rationing ice sales and that all vehicle traffic at the sprawling festival grounds had been stopped, leaving portable toilets unable to be serviced.

Officials said late Saturday the entrance to the event remained closed, and it wasn't immediately known when celebrants could leave the grounds. No driving is allowed except for emergency vehicles and organizers said they didn't have a time yet when the roads would "be dry enough for RVs or vehicles to navigate safely." But if weather conditions improve, they were hopeful vehicles could depart by late Monday.

The announcements came just before the culminating moment for the annual event — when a large wooden effigy was to be burned Saturday night. Organizers said late Saturday that all burns for now had been postponed.


Associated Press reporters Michael Casey in Boston, R.J. Rico in Atlanta and Lea Skene in Baltimore contributed.

Storyful contributed to this report.