A few large Facebook and Reddit groups are ignoring the cancellation of Burning Man and slapping together a large, unsanctioned event, but the Delta variant and lack of porta-potty service could turn this into Woodstock ‘99 on COVID.
You’ll recall that last year’s cancelled Burning Man resulted in an illegal bonfire party at Ocean Beach on Labor Day weekend that drew the wrath of Mayor London Breed. Over at Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is typically held, a much larger renegade gathering came together in 2020, and the Reno Gazette Journal estimates that about 5,000 people attended that unsanctioned gathering.
Burning Man is cancelled again this year, probably a wise decision in light of the current Delta-variant surge. But it appears a much larger rogue event is in the works for the week leading up to Labor Day anyway, as Burners who refuse to take no for an answer are planning to schlep their gear out there and party anyway — despite COVID, the lack of any formal medical services, and no porta-potty waste collection services.
The above map from the informal group Black Rock Desert Camps indicates about 350 different camps are planning to attend. A private Facebook group called Black Rock Plan B has nearly 11,000 members, and several posts daily detailing plans, asking for advice, or just posting memes. A smaller, public group called Free Playa Burners of Black Rock Desert NV operates similarly, and their posts can be viewed publicly. Over on Reddit, something called RenegadeBurn has about 1,500 members planning their “Burn,” and the 55,000-member BurningMan Reddit group is seeing frequent posts with Renegade Burn planning, and there are several smaller social media groups with names like Free Burn, Renegade Man, and Rogue Burn.
Some joker has even set up an Eventbrite ticket page for “Renegade Man / Plan B / Free Burn.” Though it is not charging money and merely asking for registration, so this is likely just an email collection scam.
But the public health issue has to be a concern here, and it is not being discussed much in these groups. As seen in the above CDC COVID Tracker by county, Washoe County — which contains the State Route 447 through which Bay Area drivers and people flying into Reno would take to the event — is still squarely in the red, high-transmission zone. Many flying in from afar will have connecting flights from Las Vegas, which is currently a raging Delta variant hot spot, with public health officials saying “you will very likely catch COVID if you go to Las Vegas.”
People traveling to the Black Rock Desert will traverse through the tribal lands of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. When Burning Man was initially cancelled in April, the tribe’s chairperson Janet Davis told NPR, "For us it is a sigh of relief," and told the Reno Gazette Journal “that influx of people would be a risk to our tribe." SFist has reached out to the tribe’s offices and will update our reporting with any comment.
We did hear from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Winnemucca District, which has jurisdiction over that federal land. "There are currently no restrictions around the Black Rock playa at this time," they said in a statement to SFist. "The area is expecting high visitation over the summer months and public safety is a priority while managing our resources."
They also provided us with the bullet point list of advice above, and added, "We would like to remind people the Black Rock Desert is very remote and emergency services are limited so visitors should educate themselves and be prepared before they go out to recreate."
But if you’re concerned this event could be a giant shitshow, you might be right. Notably, with no porta-johns provided, let alone a place to wash your hands for 20 seconds, things could get kind of filthy. People may bring in their own rented porta-potties or other waste units, but there will be no waste collection or drainage allowed, so attendees will be tasked with literally hauling out their own human waste (if they even bother).
A June 7 email from the BLM Winnemucca Unit clarifies that commercial waste handlers will not be allowed onsite to drain any units. “People are still welcome to visit the Black Rock Desert playa and camp,” the email states. “Camps must be self-sufficient. No deliveries, or services will be authorized. This includes porta-potties. Camps can get their own toilets, off of public land, and bring them out themselves, then return them. This must all be done by someone in your camp. No pumping services will be authorized.”
SFist has seen a few posts in the private groups suggesting various types or portable units, and a few people volunteering to rent and haul the units there themselves, and “make trips” to nearby waste facilities to empty them. That’s certainly noble, but it's easy to imagine these folks getting quickly overwhelmed depending on how many thousands of Burners show up out there.
One post reprinted an email from a porta-potty rental company saying “United Site Services will not be providing rentals or services onsite for this event,” but that “we will have a small amount (less than 10) of towable double restroom trailers that can be picked up at our Sparks Nevada yard. These units will be first come first served, will have to be picked up and returned to our Sparks yard and will require a large deposit to ensure units are not abandoned in the desert.”
The BLM also handed down additional rules that the “Building of structures is prohibited,” which means no wooden man or large art pieces, that “Ignition of fires other than a campfire is prohibited,” and that “Aircraft landing, taking off, touch and go’s, and taxiing is prohibited.” So many of the creature comforts of a normal Burning Man will not be allowed, though it remains to be seen how thoroughly these rules will be enforced.
We should note that a number of posters in these groups are clearly dedicated to building some form of responsible infrastructure. A small handful with medical backgrounds have volunteered their services saying they would run a medical tent, to whatever degree their efforts will be adequate for the unpredictable crowd size. Others are posting weekly “Leave No Trace” seminars in hopes of keeping these lands as clean as possible during and after the event, but we can only hope they are not overmatched and outnumbered by their more careless or hedonistic counterparts.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the many complexities it’s created, we will not be building #BlackRockCity this year. But you may be thinking about going to the playa this summer anyway, and if that's the case, this guide is for you! https://t.co/j1IZJaismb— Burning Man Project (@burningman) April 29, 2021
The Burning Man Project that runs the official event seems resigned to a sort of harm reduction model on this unsanctioned event. The official Burning Man blog has posted a few “So, You Want to Visit the Playa This Summer…” posts that do not endorse attending, but do promote responsible use of public land and safe and respectful behavior toward surrounding communities.
“Without the infrastructure of Black Rock City, Radical Self-reliance and Civic Responsibility are of the utmost importance for your safety, the safety of others, and the well-being of our beloved desert home and our neighbors,” says one of these posts. “Know that your decision-making and your preparation (or lack of it) may have impacts far beyond yourself.”
It’s impossible to anticipate how many many people will attend this event. For what it’s worth, Facebook and Reddit commenters are spitballing anticipated attendance at 10,000 to 12,000, and god knows what their vaccination rate will be. Sure, that’s definitely smaller than a normal 80,000-person Burn. But surrounding communities will be less staffed up with emergency services, and also simultaneously dealing with the twin terrors of wildfires and COVID-19.
This event certainly seems to be on, and if you’re considering going, can we suggest instead making a camping reservation at one of the many lovely California state parks where you will have much better facilities, and a vastly lower likelihood of being part of a super-spreader event?
Many who are attending this “renegade” Burn posit the event will bring Burning Man back to its roots of radical self-reliance. It may do that, or it may give Burners a new reputation for radical self-centeredness.
Image: @pjfitzpatrick via Unsplash