Burning Man disaster timeline: How did the desert festival go so terribly wrong?

An estimated 70,000 “Burners” remained trapped at Burning Man on Monday, after tropical downpours turned the desert landscape into a muddy swamp.

A deluge of rain in the Nevada desert has tested the annual bacchanal’s ethos of “radical self-reliance” like no other in its 35-year history.

While services such as internet and wi-fi were gradually being restored, sodden roads remained too treacherous to pass for the beginning of the traditional “Exodus” from the festival on Sunday.

“Burners” had been warned to conserve food and water and hunker down after the remnants of Tropical Storm Hilary brought up to three months of rain in a few hours over the weekend.

Festival organisers said they expected to be opening the gates at 9am local time (12pm ET).

Despite the challenging conditions, many festival goers were making the most of their prolonged stay.

Here’s a timeline of key events in the 2023 Burning Man.

21 August - Tropical Storm Hilary strikes

The omens for a sodden festival began days before gates officially opened, when Tropical Storm Hilary slammed into California causing widespread flooding and damage. The unseasonal storm left the festival site in the Black Rock Desert covered in water, with the arid landscape unable to absorb the heavy rainwater.

Organisers warned the thousands of attendees who turn up early to construct the desert encampment for “build week” that gates would remain closed until 23 August.

Mud covers the ground at the site of the Burning Man festival (PAUL REDER via REUTERS)
Mud covers the ground at the site of the Burning Man festival (PAUL REDER via REUTERS)

“If you were planning to travel to BRC with a Work Access Pass before then, delay your plans,” it said in a social media post.

“DO NOT drive to Gerlach, you will be turned around — there are no rooms available.”

23 August - Delayed set up begins

Gates officially open to festival workers, allowing artists access to the five mile squared Black Rock City site to build this year’s centerpiece, the Temple of the Heart structure.

“Remember to drive safely, be aware of speed limits, and respect our neighbors. Engage those Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility muscles,” the Burning Man Traffic social media account advised.

Festivalgoers were warned to stock up on wet-weather gear and additional water and food. Some reported that the flooding seemed to have largely dissipated.

27 August - Gates open, with major logjam

Gates officially open, and the majority of the tens of thousands of revellers begin to arrive.

The average wait time at the gate is around two hours, according to festival organisers.

Climate activists attempted to blockade the festival by tying themselves to a structure in the middle of road, causing a major logjam.

A Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal ranger rammed his patrol vehicle through the protester’s structure, and pulled his weapon on them.

Protesters can be heard in clips posted to social media telling the ranger that they were unarmed and “nonviolent.”

A double rainbow over the flooded Burning Man site (UGC/AFP via Getty Images)
A double rainbow over the flooded Burning Man site (UGC/AFP via Getty Images)

The tribe’s chairman, James J. Phoenix, later released a statement and said the ranger was using his patrol vehicle to clear “debris” out of the roadway after climate activists refused to leave.

The ranger’s actions were under “review”, Mr Phoenix said.

Seven Circles, the environmental group that had organised the demonstration, said the ranger’s actions excessive in a statement released to the Associated Press.

“The excessive response is a snapshot of the institutional violence and police brutality that is being shown to anyone who is actively working to bring about systemic change within the United States, including the climate movement,” the statement said.

The incident occurred on a remote highway on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe reservation in northwestern Nevada.

1 September - Months of rain fail in a single day

The festival site is hit with 0.8 inches of rain in a space of 24 hours over the evening of 1 September and into the next day, the inclement weather a result of the long tail of Tropical Storm Hilary. This amounts to 2-3 months worth of rain.

The dry desert ground turns into a quagmire, with up to a foot of thick mud making driving almost impossible and even walking treacherous for the festival’s final weekend. Temperatures are much cooler than normal, dropping into the low 50s.

All traffic to and from the festival is closed, and organisers place a ban on bicycles and buggies inside the camp and tell Burners to conserve food and water.

“Do not drive your vehicle. Do not ride your bike, do not push your bike around. Remain where you are,” organisers warn.

“Secure structures and belongings in your camp. Don’t operate generators or other electrically powered instruments that are standing in water. Cover or secure anything electrical.”

“Check on your campmates and neighbors to make sure they’re OK, and help them as needed. Take advantage of a moment of calm to connect with campmates and hunker down.”

The Burning Man airport a few miles from the campsite is closed, grounding dozens of private aircraft. About 73,000 attendees are stuck inside the site, according to authorities.

According to USA Today, toilet cleaning services are suspended and cell phone coverage is “virtually non existent”.

The weather forces the cancellation of several large-scale effigy burnings.

2 September - Revellers look to escape

Some hardy festival goers opt to take matters into their own hands and walk for miles through the mud to nearby pickup points.

Among them are comedian Chris Rock and DJ Diplo, who posted a video to his Instagram account after they were given a lift by a passing truck.

“Just walked five miles in the mud out of Burning Man with Chris Rock and a fan picked us up,” the music producer said in a social media post.

Festival organisers confirm the death of a 40-year-old man at the festival. His identity has not yet been released.

Burning Man said in a statement that the death was “unrelated to the weather”. The death is under investigation by the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office.

An enormous double rainbow is sighted over Black Rock City.

The Bureau of Land Management tells anyone headed to the festival to “turn around and head home”.

“Rain over the last 24 hours has created a situation that required a full stop of vehicle movement on the playa,” the BLM said in a statement announcing the closure of access roads.

“More rain is expected over the next few days and conditions are not expected to improve enough to allow vehicles to enter the playa.”

Despite the difficult conditions, many Burners said they were continuing to party and share food, water and shelter.

“Radical self-reliance is one of the principles of Burning Man,” longtime attendee Ed Fletcher told the Associated Press. “The desert will try to kill you in some way, shape or form.”

The burning of the large Man effigy that normally occurs on Saturday night was postponed.

3 September - Thousands left trapped

In a 9am update, Burning Man organisers say roads remain closed due to the mud and an “uncertain weather front” is approaching Black Rock City.

“Some vehicles with 4WD and all-terrain tires are able to navigate the mud and are successfully leaving. But we are seeing most other types of vehicles that try to depart getting stuck in the wet mud which hampers everyone’s Exodus.”

Those trapped at the festival try to make the most of the enforced delays, with bars and communal areas reportedly packed.

In a post that evening, the festival says is trying to clean portable toilets and restore cell phone reception via mobile trailers.

It also advises that rumours of a “transmissible disease” that were spreading on social media are unfounded. False claims of an ebola outbreak at the encampment had been circulating.

Organisers said the ‘Man’ wooden effigy burn was now scheduled for the evening of Monday 4 September, and the Chapel of Babel would burn at midnight.