An Eyewitness to the Burning Man Catastrophe That Wasn’t

As wild rumors circled the globe of a humanitarian disaster at the Nevada event, New Lines' editorial director was enjoying the festivities under the stars

An Eyewitness to the Burning Man Catastrophe That Wasn’t
Attendees dance during the annual Burning Man event in September 2023. (Julie Jammot/AFP via Getty Images)

Some of the tracer noise of fireworks that accompanied the burning of the Man reminded me for a brief but disconcerting instant of war. Flares and whips, screams, shrieks and whistles gave a fleeting resemblance to the sounds that accompany mortar shells, especially from my time covering the war in Syria. But unlike the news stories that had been circulating about a so-called humanitarian crisis and false assertions on social media of an Ebola outbreak unfolding at the 35th annual event held in Black Rock City in the Nevada desert, the mood remained festive, even ecstatic.

This year and last have brought some of the more aberrant weather patterns for Burning Man, which cannot escape the extreme weather of climate change. The event — it is not called a festival — has grown since its inception in 1986, when a couple of guys built a man with wooden sticks and burned him on a San Francisco beach, to a gathering of up to 80,000 revelers during the last week of August through Labor Day weekend in a “city” that arises from the dust only to return to dust once the festivities are over. (Burning Man took a two-year hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why this year was the 35th and not 37th annual event.)

Last year was my first time attending — or my first “Burn” — and we endured temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit and gusts of wind that upended tents and well-anchored camping yurts. The low humidity made the heat potentially tolerable if you were healthy, well hydrated and had immediate access to shade structures with swamp coolers. The wind that year demanded sealed goggles for eye protection and continuous wearing of a mask to protect one’s upper respiratory tract from inflammation. But as Burners like to point out, the dust gets in every crevice, nook and cranny of your body and personal belongings no matter how hard you try to keep it off. Nor does it wash away easily, except with vinegar, a must-have for any responsible Burner.

This year, on the days that it did not rain, the weather was stunning. It was a perfect 80-something degrees, low humidity and no wind. At night, the stars shone upon us and the air smelled clean and felt crisp on our skin, demanding little more than a light jacket to keep the body warm. On a couple of nights, temperatures dropped to the 50s, requiring an extra blanket or two, whether you camped in a tent, yurt or an RV.

Black Rock City sits on an ancient lakebed. In dry heat, it is a flat, smooth but cracked surface that resembles overcooked clay. Mixed with water, the soil of the Playa — the endearing name given to the harsh lakebed — turns heavy, like wet clay. Save for with specialized emergency response vehicles, it is impossible to drive on without sinking your tires into the mud and becoming stuck. Walking on the wet Playa comes with its own challenges. The wet clay cakes onto your shoes and makes them heavy. Very heavy. And the wetter parts on the ground can be slippery and impossible to navigate. It is best to shelter in place, but this is not possible when nature calls and the nearest row of port-a-potties is some distance away, equivalent to a city block and a half, or a few minutes’ walk. Speaking of which, due to the rain, the latrines were not serviced for a couple of days (normally they are serviced at least twice a day to keep up with the demand of tens of thousands of people who rely on them). During this down time, mud accumulated inside each vestibule and caked upward of a foot, which, on the upside, might have made matters easier for shorter Burners who no longer had to struggle to climb on top of the toilet seat and aim without touching it. Toilet paper disappeared entirely during this time and, as the human waste kept accumulating, it became clear that we could soon be facing a public health emergency if the rain continued for another day. Our camp, the name of which I am withholding to protect people’s privacy, sprang into action. We produced a few porter urinals and built our own “shitters for number two.” Fortunately, the rain stopped, the port-a-potties were serviced and we dismantled our makeshift septic services.

The collaborative, can-do-anything spirit that overcame us and other camps also reminded me of the difficult circumstances in war, in its early days, when people come together to face calamity, before survival needs and scarce resources begin to break down the social order.

And, like the dynamics during the early days of a war or natural disaster, there were also rumors of deaths on the Playa. There was one about a reveler who supposedly was electrocuted while walking in the wet mud. Another — this one more sinister — involved a supposed fatal shooting of a man who was going around filming people without their consent, a big no-no at Burning Man, where firearms are also strictly forbidden.

Both reports turned out to be false but, for at least one evening, we sat around the campfire and believed them.

This made me wonder about the process behind starting and circulating rumors, for it is fascinating how similar it is across fundamentally different contexts, like Burning Man and a war zone. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the study of rumors has received sufficient attention from researchers, even though they seem to have a predictable pattern. How do they start? And why? Does a specific sort of person with some universal personality type start them? Is it a fear that resides in the collective consciousness, waiting for an opportunity to be verbalized?

Getting electrocuted during the rainstorm did not seem a far-fetched outcome, as the rain came in fast and turned the ground into mud with sizable puddles through which all sorts of electric wiring ran. I personally worried about being electrocuted before I even heard the rumor. And the fear of getting shot? Well, that’s just America and, unfortunately, we all know it’s a possibility.

I remember in Syria, early in the war, before sectarian violence had ignited in earnest, rumors started circulating in a suburb of Damascus where many Sunni and Shiite Muslims residents had lived side-by-side for decades, barely keeping track of which household belonged to which sect. Yet seemingly overnight, when the specter of such violence was merely a silent fear in the collective imagination, rumors of it began to circulate. “The (insert Sunni or Shiite here) are going door to door and killing their neighbors,” my friend, who lived in that neighborhood, told me one morning, visibly frightened. “We slept with furniture blocking our front door.”

No such door-to-door massacre had unfolded; at least not in that neighborhood, and not so early in the war.

At Black Rock City, the climax of the event culminates with the burning of the Man, a stunning wooden structure designed and built from scratch every year for this purpose. This year, the burning happened after the rain stopped. After a gorgeous day on Saturday gave way to evening, and the darkness ushered in the stars and a waning gibbous moon, revelers finally got to don their best costume and ride their bicycles, LED lights illuminating their silhouettes. Previously grounded mutant vehicles (or art cars) also came out in all their splendor. Like every year, there were applause and cheers as the Man burned, fireworks adding to the euphoria. Out deep on the Playa, after a full night of dancing to excellent house music, the sun came out again, and the party kept going. Some two dozen high-quality speakers pumped the beat of mesmeric electronic music played by DJs who came from all over the world, while on-duty law enforcement personnel armed and dressed in bulletproof gear posed for selfies with red-eyed Burners who put their arms around them.

Coming out of the Burn and connecting to Wi-Fi for the first time in over a week, I finally caught up with the international news that had — unbeknownst to me — whipped up a frenzy about my Burn. I immediately responded to the frantic messages of loved ones who wanted to know that I was OK. I very much am. And I cannot help but wonder: What humanitarian disaster was the world worried about?

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