The Burning Man party is over. Now a massive cleanup begins

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The rain has passed, and the temple has burned. Now, as Burning Man slowly empties, it’s time to clean up.

Burning Man organizers have three weeks to clean up any remnants of the makeshift city plopped across over 4 square miles (10 square kilometers) of the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada, but a summer storm that left tens of thousands stranded in ankle-deep mud could alter that timeframe.

The annual gathering, which launched on a San Francisco beach in 1986, attracts nearly 80,000 artists, musicians and activists to the sprawling stretch of public land for a weeklong mix of wilderness camping and avant-garde performances. One of the principles of Burning Man is to leave no trace — an expectation that all attendees will pack out everything they brought to Black Rock City and clean out their camps before leaving.

But in the aftermath of torrential rains that closed roads, jammed traffic and forced many to walk miles barefoot through the muck, the area is dotted with abandoned vehicles, rugs, furniture, tents and trash. In a normal year, the desert floor is harder and easier to navigate, but flooding and deep imprints from vehicles spinning tires in the muck have made traveling there more difficult.

This week, many attendees descended on the airport in Reno, Nevada, to get last-minute flights home. Car washes at times turned away vehicles too caked in mud and clay, according to KTVN-TV in Reno. There are signs outside nearby grocery stores banning disposal of Burning Man-related trash and recycling in their bins.

Eleonora Segreti, who lives in central Italy and made her second visit this year to Burning Man, left the site early Tuesday.

Leave no trace is "a strong principle,” she said Tuesday after taking a shuttle to Reno-Tahoe International Airport. “If it is a matter of staying overnight one extra day to do the work to clean up, most of the people are doing that.”

But that sentiment is not felt by everyone. Jeffrey Longoria of San Francisco said since he started attending, trash issues have gotten worse.

“People are starting to leave a trace," said Longoria, 37, while cleaning his mud-stained boots outside of a Walmart in Reno. “They’re forgetting the core principles of the burn.”

The erosion of those core principals might be in part because many of the festival's original attendees have gotten older, he said, and there's a wave of newer attendees — “the kind that have a couple hundred thousand-dollar RVs and are careless about the environment."

A permit issued by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management requires Burning Man organizers to clear the area of debris after vehicles exit the desert, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northeast of Reno. Burning Man organizers did not immediately respond to questions from The Associated Press about how the rain will impact the cleanup timeline.

In a media update Wednesday evening, organizers said “individuals who had to leave before their carpools and camps were ready to depart, and camps who needed to leave early due to the storm, are returning to the event site today through Saturday to disassemble their projects, tear down their camps, and remove their possessions.”

The temporary closure of the area for Burning Man is in effect for 66 days each year, according to the BLM: 31 to build the makeshift city, nine for the main event and 26 for post-festival cleanup.

Last year, after the festival’s return following a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Burning Man team narrowly passed its Oct. 7 inspection.

“But it was extraordinarily and alarmingly close,” the restoration team’s manager wrote earlier this year in a post on the Burning Man website summarizing last year's cleanup efforts, while urging attendees leave no trace.

The post described 2022 as one of the “messiest playas in recent history” — evidenced by a 15-yard (13 meters) dumpster filled with cardboard boxes, glass bottles, carpeted rugs and plastic. The cleanup team also collected more than 1,000 tent stakes — “the most dangerous” and abundant debris left behind, according to the post.

During the 2022 inspection, BLM surveyed 120 different areas chosen at random across the festival site for trash and debris, according to Burning Man’s annual cleanup report. They failed eight of the tests last year and would not have passed if they had failed 12, according to the report.

Cleanup also involves smoothing out the dried lake bed with large rakes attached to trucks and picking up trash on the frequented highways, according to BLM spokesperson John Asselin.

Next month, teams made up of federal employees and Burning Man organizers will again conduct a site inspection. Event organizers will be on the hook for any repairs that are identified as necessary, Asselin said.

Many festival attendees — who refer to themselves as burners — arrive with limited supplies. Challenges in the form of brutal heat, dust storms and torrential rains are expected and, largely, welcomed.

While there, they build an elaborate if temporary city of themed camps, decorated art cars and guerilla theatrics.

The ceremonial burnings of a towering, faceless effigy Monday night, and the temple Tuesday night had been postponed because of heavy rain. More than a half-inch (1.3 centimeters) fell on Friday, turning the powdery desert floor into mud.

For many, torching the temple has become the centerpiece of the celebration — an intimate, spiritual tradition in which attendees commemorate departed loved ones.

Nevada U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, whose district includes Black Rock Desert, said Burning Man is a positive event for the area. Its organizers work well with local officials and he expects they again will meet the requirement to clean up, even if it’s “more of a chore this time.”

Still, Amodei said, Burning Man organizers have been good partners and have cleaned up after themselves in past years, as their event permit requires.

Cliff Osborne, a tow truck operator who is in his sixth year working at Burning Man, estimated that since Monday, his company has towed 50 vehicles to the highway, and freed another 60 vehicles from mud.

For the first time this year, organizers hired a road-grader to smooth ruts in the well-traveled road from the festival site to the highway, Osborne said.

He said on Wednesday that roads were hardening, dusty air had returned and he had seen no one injured. The site itself “is more messy this year than in the past,” with a lot more garbage, he said.

Amodei told the AP it would be "a little bit more of a chore this time” to clean up the site. "And I’m sure they’re up to the task."

Some festivalgoers plan to stay as long as it takes to clean the grounds.

“This is a national conservation area, and it’s part of our mission to leave it and as good a condition as we found it,” said Alexander Elmendorf, 36, who planned to stay until Friday. “So that means getting every bed, utensil, every cigarette butt.” ___

Sonner and Stern reported from Reno, Nevada, and Komenda reported from Tacoma, Washington. Associated Press reporters Rio Yamat and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed. Stern is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.