There will be no flaming 40-foot statue, high-rise temples or other elaborate, fantastical structures on the Black Rock Desert during the week before Labor Day – but several thousand campers are expected to be there celebrating an unofficial version of Burning Man for the second year in a row.
And while the usual large-scale pyrotechnics are prohibited, there probably will be smoke – and plenty of it – as California wildfires continue to gobble up Sierra Nevada forests.
The 2019 gathering, marking the 28th year of the art festival in Nevada, drew more than 78,000 revelers. Organizers cancelled 2020 and 2021 events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, thousands of folks showed up anyway. This year, even more people are expected to be parking campers and pitching tents on the vast, dry lake bed about two hours north of Reno.
“I went last year and it was a blast,” said Cowie Frederickson of Reno, a retired carpenter who previously attended the festival in 2006, when attendance was about 39,000, and in 2012, when Burning Man hosted 55,000 participants.
The ‘olden days’
“I stopped going after that because it got way too big and commercialized,” Frederickson said. People he met on the playa last year, he said, told him the informal “Not Burning Man” gathering was more like the festival in the 1990s. That was the “olden days,” he said, before billionaires, accompanied by servants, flew in on private planes packed with gourmet food, and ticket prices exceeded $500.
Last year, he said, individual camps were widely scattered across the playa, with one larger camp at the site of what is usually the heart of Black Rock City. At the official event, participants are directed to designated campsites packed cheek-to-jowl into sections of the concentric rings that circle the statue of the Man himself. The wooden figure, covered in neon lights, is traditionally lit ablaze on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend.
“(Last year) was real laid back and friendly,” Frederickson said. “There was still art and art cars and a real community feeling.”
‘Whatever happens, happens’
Alex Chambers of Reno also will trek to the remote desert, where he and his girlfriend will park a small camper for a few nights. Chambers attended Burning Man four times between 2008 and 2014, and also saw the festival evolve into what is, albeit temporarily, Nevada’s sixth-largest city.
Chambers, who owns Wonder Web Development, a web-design firm in Sparks, also has attended related Burning Man gatherings, JunePlaya and Fourth of Juplaya, an informal July 4 campout. He planned to attend the 2020 main event, “but then COVID happened,” he said.
“The unofficial events are less structured and without all the rules that Burning Man has now,” Chambers said. That’s what he expects he’ll experience this year. He will pack dry ice, food that doesn’t need to be cooked and plenty of water.
“Going there is probably not the most intelligent thing to do, now that the Delta variant of COVID is going around, but I’m vaccinated, so we’ll see” he said. “It’s hard to say what to expect. I’ve heard that there will be a lot more people out there than last year, so that’s kind of shocking.
“We’ll just set our stuff up and go meet people. Whatever happens, happens. It’s all good by me,” he said.
A warning and new rules
The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, meanwhile, has issued an advisory aimed at this year’s die-hard Burners. The bulletin warns that dense smoke is expected, blowing in from the massive Dixie and Caldor fires burning in Northern California. The advisory noted that there will be none of the services that are a part of the official event, including bathrooms, police patrols, medical services and expanded cell-phone coverage. The nearest trauma hospital, the advisory noted, is about three hours away.
In addition, the Bureau of Land Management has issued temporary restrictions for users of the Black Rock Desert through the end of October. The rules prohibit: fires, except cook fires within containers at least 6 inches off the ground; large art installations and other structures, with the exception of sleeping tents and shade tents; fireworks; the dumping of human waste, wastewater or other liquids on the playa; and aircraft landings.
In other words, the BLM has banned most of the festival’s signature attractions. Still, die-hard Burners said being among fellow revelers and artists is enough of a reason to brave the wildfire smoke and alkali dust, that sometimes makes Black Rock City resemble a scene from “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Safety in small numbers
Larry DeVincenzi , who owns the bar Rum Sugar Lime in Midtown Reno, was tempted to go out to the playa last year, but was wary of the spread of COVID-19. Now that he’s been vaccinated, and the friends he expects to see there also got the jabs, he plans to attend the unofficial festival.
“At least it’s outdoors,” he said. “We’re loading up on lights because it will be pretty dark out there (without the usual lit-up structures and street lights) and the rest of it is pretty loosey-goosey at this point… I think there will some safety in staying in small groups. I’m just interested to see what it is.”
DeVincenzi, a veteran Burner who has attended the festival each year from 2004 to 2018, said Burning Man is “as much about the people as it is the art.” He’ll be with a group of artists, he said, and friends from around the country are expected to be there, so it will be a reunion of sorts.
Even without the big installations and art projects, he said, art will probably be everywhere on the dry lake bed.
Art and community
“We have friends from Philadelphia who expect to be out there, so I think it will be a smaller demographic of some of the same people who went every year,” DeVincenzi said. He also hopes the event will maintain the sense of community and camaraderie that usually pervade the event.
“Without all the big camps out there this year, it may be even more fun,” he said.
The dense wildfire smoke that has blanketed Northern Nevada for weeks is this year’s wild card. “But it’s always different every year,” he said. “It could be raining or there may be big dust storms, and we’ve had wildfire smoke before. It should be fun, and if it’s not fun we’ll come home.
“Without having to buy a ticket, if you don’t like it you can leave. There’s not a lot of investment involved, but if I know Burners, they’ll make the most of it.”