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Burning Man 2023: Gates reopen as Black Rock City builders report for duty

The Burning Man structure is surrounded by puddles on Monday at Burning Man 2023 at Black Rock Desert in Pershing County, Nevada. | Source: Maryann Thompson for The Standard

The gates to Burning Man reopened at noon Wednesday for event builders who had been marooned in Reno since Sunday due to flooding after heavy rains.

Organizers expect the playa population to grow from 1,500 to as many as 14,000 as staff, artists and theme camp crews arrive to resume construction on Black Rock City in time for the weeklong event to begin this coming Sunday.

A flooded campground with vehicles, trailers, and submerged bikes, under stormy skies.
An area near trailers and campsites is flooded on Monday at Burning Man 2023 in Black Rock Desert in Pershing County, Nevada. | Source: Maryann Thompson for The Standard

The remnants of Hurricane Hilary dumped more rain on the Burning Man site than it had received in its 31-year history, flooding many areas and rendering the rest impassable with inches of mucky mud.

READ MORE: Burning Man 2023: Hilary Rains Cause Chaos on the Playa, Delays Build

The event takes place two hours north of Reno, Nevada, in the Black Rock Desert on a dry lakebed—the playa—but the 0.6 inches of rain that fell overnight this past weekend brought a bit of prehistoric Lake Lahontan back to life.

An area near trailers and campsites at Burning Man 2023 is flooded. | Source: Maryann Thompson for The Standard

The storm caused organizers to close the event gates on Monday and Tuesday of “Build” week to early-access staff and builders.

“Temporary gate closures are not abnormal,” the Burning Man Project said in a statement. “In this case, we’re thankful the rain took place early during set up and isn’t affecting too many folks, and that our teams already in Black Rock City are safe.”

Making Do in the Mud

Burning Man leaders had announced a halt to all movement around Black Rock City on Monday morning to preserve the surface of the playa. The precaution was taken to prevent severe ruts that would result from driving—though no wheels could move more than a few yards without becoming hopelessly stuck. 

Tent campers were the worst hit by the flooding. Many prepped as well as they could, given the advance notice of the storm. And a largely rainless Monday helped dry out many items. 

It didn’t take many hours for most of the floodwaters to recede into thick mud. By Monday afternoon, walking the few hundred feet—or yards—to the commissary became the new challenge, and even longtime Burners had varying opinions on the best way to do it.

Many remembered getting around when a bit of rain fell in Black Rock City in 2014, but the mud only lasted a short time before it was dried out by the sun.

Most Burners knew boots were hopeless; the thick treads immediately created “playa platforms,” with anywhere from two to six inches of guck cemented underneath. 

Most Burners knew boots were hopeless in the muddy conditions on Monday. | Source: Maryann Thompson for The Standard

Better options? Place plastic bags around your bare feet or shoes and tape them around your ankles, or step into two tall garbage bags and loop each one through your belt. The plastic keeps mud from clumping onto your feet but makes every step a slippery adventure.

Soon enough, plenty of Burners resolved to wear a sacrificial pair of socks for a bit more grip or just go barefoot—a strategy made more complex when faced with a trip to the portable toilet. But by Monday happy hour, many had discovered the joy of dragging one's toes through the luxuriously silky silt—a treatment that spas could charge hundreds of dollars for.

Moving your feet in a skating motion proved an effective way to get through the floodwaters without worrying about maintaining your balance. In fact, during two days of mud-and-flood conditions, this reporter never saw anyone slip and fall into the muddy morass.

A person walks through puddles while wearing plastic bags on their feet at Burning Man 2023. | Source: Maryann Thompson for The Standard

Back to Business

Advance notice of the impending Monday floods meant the 1,500 builders already on the playa by Sunday had raced to get city infrastructure set up, trailers placed and camp foundations started before the rain.

Because preparations for Burning Man’s gathering on the week leading up to Labor Day began months ago, construction of landmark structures in Black Rock City—including streets, light spires, the Man, the Temple and the Center Camp shade structure—appeared well underway before the weather hit.

Center camp is pictured at Burning Man 2023 on Monday. | Source: Maryann Thompson for The Standard

By Tuesday afternoon, major roads around the city had completely dried out and organizers allowed on-playa driving to resume.

After 36 hours of quiet, the zip of power tools and beep of truck backup resumed. Bobcats fitted with augers zoomed out to drill holes for shade structures, forklifts moved camp containers of belongings to their proper addresses and flatbeds with solar panels and portable toilets got moving again.

An auger vehicle patrols the property at Burning Man 2023 on Tuesday. | Source: Maryann Thompson for The Standard

Walkers and bikers emerged from their shelters to a nicely cracked playa. In front of the commissary, raised paths through the mud had been built for hungry builders.

Port-a-potty trucks were servicing units, solar crews were checking equipment and floodlights were erected for a handful of anxious art and camp crews to get in a few more hours of construction.

By 8 a.m. Wednesday, all hands were back on deck: Skies were clear, music blared from speakers and builder energy was on full blast.

The city will be built and the playa will be dry by the time attendees arrive at Burning Man on Sunday. Even better? The weather will be lovely: Dust will be at a minimum, and temps are forecast to top out in the high 80s.