Updated Sep 5, 2023 - Energy & Environment

What we know about the flooding at Burning Man

An overview of the 2023 Burning Man Festival in Black Rock, Nevada, on Aug. 28.

An overview of the 2023 Burning Man Festival in Black Rock, northwest Nevada, on Aug. 28. "Satellite image: ©2023 Maxar Technologies

Over 70,000 Burning Man festival-goers were stranded in Nevada's Black Rock Desert following heavy rain over the weekend.

The latest: Shelter-in-place orders were lifted on Monday and attendees were cleared to leave Nevada's Black Rock Desert. "Exodus" operations officially began at 2pm Monday local time, but there was an hours-long departure delay as satellite images showed hundreds of vehicles attempting to leave the muddy site.

Satellite imagery showing a traffic jam as vehicles begin departing the Burning Man festival in Nevada's Black Rock desert on Monday.
Satellite imagery showing a traffic jam as vehicles begin departing the Burning Man festival in Nevada's Black Rock desert on Monday. Satellite image: ©2023 Maxar Technologies
  • Festival officials urged attendees before the driving ban was lifted to delay leaving the area until Tuesday if possible.

State of play

Festival attendees were told Saturday to "[t]ake shelter in a warm, safe place" and to conserve food, fuel and water.

  • The Pershing County Sheriff's Office confirmed Monday one person died at the event, now identified as 32-year-old Leon Reece.
  • Authorities said they are continuing to investigate the death of Reece, who received CPR from medical staff at the festival after being unresponsive.
  • Authorities said the heavy rains delayed their investigation, and the festival's doctor had pronounced Reece dead before they arrived to the area.

Pershing County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Nathan Carmichael told CNN Sunday that many attendees chose to walk out of the festival grounds, and many RVs were stuck in place.

  • Festival organizers said in an online post that conditions had improved Sunday night, though there's "still a chance of showers, thunderstorms and gusty winds."
  • The burning of the "man" totem that marks the culmination of the festival was postponed Saturday. By the time the burn started on Monday night, festival organizers said there was an eight-hour departure time wait from the site.
A screenshot of a tweet by Burning Man organizers saying: "Due to rain & muddy conditions Sunday & an inability to move heavy equipment & fire safety onsite, the Man Burn will not happen tonight, Sunday. It is now scheduled for Monday 9/4, at 9pm. Chapel of Babel is scheduled to burn at midnight, Tuesday 9/5 (i.e. Monday night 9/4)."
Photo: Burning Man Traffic/X

Shelter-in-place orders

Orders for attendees to stay in their camps were issued on Saturday evening, including to avoid driving or biking on the area that the Black Rock Desert sits on, referred to as the "playa."

  • Burning Man organizers said they were attempting to provide more cellphone service for festival-goers and opening up internet access in certain locations.
  • Burning Man officials said they would deploy buses to transport attendees to Reno, nearly 120 miles away from the festival site. The statement recommended festival-goers go to Reno if they were seeking a hotel room.
  • The gate entrance and road to the festival remained closed Sunday and any attendees on their way to Burning Man were advised to "turn around and head home."
Attendees look at a double rainbow over flooding on a desert plain on September 1, 2023, after heavy rains turned the annual Burning Man festival site in Nevada's Black Rock desert into a mud pit. Tens of thousands of festivalgoers were stranded September 3, in deep mud in the Nevada desert after rain turned the annual Burning Man gathering into a quagmire, with police investigating one death. Video footage showed costume-wearing "burners" struggling across the wet gray-brown site, some using trash bags as makeshift boots, while many vehicles were stuck in the sludge.
Attendees look at a double rainbow over flooding on a desert plain on Sept. 1, after heavy rains turned the annual Burning Man festival site in Nevada's Black Rock Desert into a mud pit. Photo: Julie Jammot/AFP via Getty Images

What caused the flooding

Pershing County officials said moderate to heavy rain that lasted for several hours caused conditions that "made it virtually impossible for motorized vehicles to traverse" the playa.

  • The desert saw two to three months' worth of rain in a 24-hour period on Friday into Saturday, creating a situation that required a "full stop of vehicle movement on the playa," according to festival officials.
  • The heavy rainfall was the result of moisture from the Southwest monsoon, and multiple flash flood warnings were issued Saturday for this region and other California and Nevada desert areas.
  • Even an inch of rain is rare for this Nevada region, making the ground unable to absorb the water without creating runoff and mudflows.

Between the lines: Heavy rain events in the desert Southwest and Great Basin are only moderately unusual during this time of year as late-season monsoonal moisture interacts with early season troughs or low pressure systems, as was occurring at the 2023 Burning Man festival, per UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain.

  • "However, such heavy rain events are typically somewhat localized--so fact that fairly heavy rain fell in *this* particular location during *this* particular week — while there are 70k people in a pretty remote stretch of (usually) dry desert lakebed — makes this event a big deal," he wrote in an online post.
  • On whether it's plausible that climate change is increasing the odds of Burning Man washouts Swain said: "Yes, probably — the heaviest downpours will increase almost everywhere in a warming climate."

Go deeper: Extreme precipitation risks currently underestimated

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

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