It certainly was an unusual year out in the Black Rock Desert, but every year of building, experiencing, then tearing down Black Rock City has been unusual in one way or another. This year, there was a significant early rain storm associated with Hurricane Hilary that, after the waters receded, left the playa hard-packed. This was followed by several bright, temperate, wild and wonderful days during which the city thrived in all the ways we see each year — the art was magnificent, mutant vehicles were roaming, theme camp offerings were in full swing, and the energy was high.
And then the rain came again, which needs no introduction.
Thanks in large part to Burning Man participants staunchly embracing a Leave No Trace principle, removing matter out of place together, this year’s playa restoration benefited from that shared commitment on full display.
We figured we’d chat with the people who are on the ground in the Black Rock Desert right now — Department of Public Works (DPW) and Playa Restoration (Resto) staff — for an update on the playa, just a few weeks out from our annual inspection.
So how did the citizens of Black Rock City leave the playa in 2023? It turns out that, to quote Chris ‘Chaos’ Neary, Associate Director of the DPW, which packs up city infrastructure, removes any large abandoned items, and takes down the perimeter fence, “The participants did an amazing job… that’s why it’s so frustrating for me to hear all this conjecture in the media… It’s really not like that at all. It’s phenomenal out there.”
Post event, DPW and Resto teams found themselves on a perfectly hard-packed playa beneath clear, dust-free skies. Chaos continued: “At no point during the event cycle did we have any significant amounts of blowing dust. So what we have is a very flat, mostly hard playa surface in all the open areas, which means that there’s very little MOOP out there, and the MOOP that is there is going to be really easy to find. From a line sweeping perspective, it’s a huge, huge advantage. But we will definitely have time to do the city grid with two complete passes and then do focused effort on the hotter areas that we determine through those two passes of the city grid.”
While a small minority of participants (from around 180 camps) felt compelled to leave while the playa was still wet for various reasons, the majority stayed until the playa dried out, AND did an exceptional job MOOPing before they left. Black Rock City’s Playa Restoration Manager, Dominic ‘DA’ Tinio, who leads the Restoration (Resto) Team that sweeps behind the DPW to pick up every last woodchip, zip tie and widget, chimed in, “I think the participants worked smarter, not harder, after all of us getting our asses kicked last year in the dust storm and the heat, and I really think that people were bringing their best to this year. I think people were keeping it clean right up until the point where it rained. So if it’s clean when it rains, we’re still pretty good. If it’s MOOPy and it rains, that’s when we’re in trouble. I feel like it was a great year all around. This rain thing is just what it was, and most people sat out the rain and they just waited for it to dry and then they just packed up their stuff and they drove off the playa.”
Those abandoned vehicles and couches? We hate to see anything left behind, but it’s important to note that there were no more this year than in previous years. “Every year we have to do what we call large abandoned item removal,” Chaos said. It’s a process by which we sweep the city and gather up all the loose objects. This year was a very average year as far as items left behind by camps. We actually had significantly fewer camps that really abandoned a lot of their stuff. In a lot of years we have 10 or 12 problem camps. This year it was only two or three places where a camp clearly just abandoned a bunch of stuff.”
“We have sometimes vehicles that were misplaced, sometimes someone was medevaced or something along those lines, and their car’s still out there. Sometimes a rental vehicle gets abandoned or a trailer, two people don’t agree on who’s picking it up and then nobody picks it up. This year, we probably had about 20 or so vehicles left behind like that… We have been able to successfully get all of those vehicles handled by the owners or the companies that were serving those owners. So there are no remaining unknown vehicles left out there.”
Many people have expressed heartfelt concern for the condition of our bumpy playa. Thank you! We love the playa and are moved that you care deeply about its ruts and bumps. It turns out a rough playa like the one we have this year is easier to remediate than last year’s dunes. Chaos explained, “The ruts and holes caused by vehicles is a real issue but one that can be mitigated fairly easily by dragging and watering. This process breaks down bumps and high spots, and then fills in the depressions. We have a lot of experience with this and are conducting these operations currently.”
In addition to our operational methods, Mother Nature plays a big role. Chaos reminds us: “Our experience tells us that if there is a lot of rainwater and we get a lake on the playa this winter, there will be almost no evidence of the 2023 event. Even without the lake, the annual snow and rain will erase the majority of the bumpiness.”
What is the prognosis as we roll into the month-long 2023 Playa Restoration season? Chaos continued: “I’m optimistic that we’re going to have a good Resto season with favorable weather conditions and no blowing dust. And that will result in a clean playa and hopefully a good result on our [Bureau of Land Management] inspection.”
Our partners at BLM shared:
“Burning Man is in the process of playa restoration,” said BLM Black Rock Field Office Assistant Field Manager, Andy Boerigter, on Friday, September 15. “Yesterday, I had a conversation on the playa with Chaos, and it appears the Playa Restoration team is working hard, and on schedule with the clean-up. The Black Rock Field Office staff will continue to monitor the event site until the post-event inspection in a few weeks.”
DA expressed his gratitude to Black Rock City participants for the current, encouraging state of the playa: “This community is awesome. They leave no trace so well. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe. And I believe with my own eyes… I’ve been here for a long time. Nobody has stared at the ground watching the community MOOP or the Black Rock Desert conditions longer than I have, and I’m just like, ‘Watch us. We’re going to leave no trace, bitches.’”
For a little more behind-the-scenes action with Chaos, check out this clip of an interview with Profiles in Dust videographer Terry Pratt:
Header image: Site of the Man Base, September 15, 2023 (Photo by DA)