This year’s Burning Man festival is officially canceled, but that won’t stop thousands of people from gathering at the event’s traditional site in Northern Nevada this week for an unauthorized celebration in the same vein.
Officials at the Bureau of Land Management — which controls Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man typically takes place the week before Labor Day — estimate that roughly 10,000 people will arrive to the site this week for a non-ticketed event that’s widely being referred to as “Free Burn” and “Renegade Burn,” among other non-official titles. Lands managed by the Black Rock Field Office (BRFO) are available for the public to use year-round, with a 14-day limit to recreational use and camping.
The Bureau of Land Management has issued a number of temporary restrictions that will apply on the site through Oct. 31, 2021, which include ignition of fires other than a campfire, burning of structures, building of structures, possession and or use of lasers and “aircraft landing, taking off, touch-and-go landings.” These restrictions provide that this year’s “non-event” will look much different than typical Burning Man festivals, which are incredible spectacles of fire, lasers and ornate art installations and stage structures. Burning Man usually also has an airstrip for on-site arrivals.
These restrictions aren’t, however, deterring Free Burners from trekking to the desert and people started arriving to Black Rock Desert for “Free Burn” as early as Aug. 20, according Heather O’ Hanlon, Public affairs specialist at Winnemucca District Office Bureau of Land Management. While O’ Hanlon notes that her organization is preparing for 10,0000 people to arrive to the site, she says this number “may change with the poor air quality the area is experiencing due to fires.”
Smoke from the Caldor Fire currently raging near Lake Tahoe, Calif., is currently drifting across California, Montana, Nevada and beyond. On Aug. 25, CNN reported that smoke from the Caldor Fire was creating the worst air quality in the country in Reno, Nevada. The Washoe County Schools District, in which Reno is located, canceled school early last week due to the hazardous air quality. The site where Burning Man happens in the Black Rock Desert is located approximately three hours north of Reno.
Beyond this challenge, with Burning Man officially canceling the 2021 event in April due to the pandemic (after considering requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for all attendees), this week’s “non-event” will not have any of the infrastructure typically provided by the organization, such as porto-potties, medical services and the roughly 10,000 volunteers who provide various modes of support.
“Free Burn” attendees are thus being encouraged to deeply abide by the Burning Man principle of “radical self reliance” this week as people head into the desert for a Burning Man-style event with no precedent. Since April of this year, the Burning Man Organization has been offering advice for “Free Burners” with its “So, You Want to Visit the Playa This Summer …” series of blog posts, with topics ranging from how and where to go to the bathroom, to proper trash disposal to general safety measures.
O’Hanlon says Bureau of Land Management Law Enforcement is working with Humboldt, Pershing and Washoe County Sheriff’s Offices to provide law enforcement and safety measures this week on the playa — Black Rock Desert’s dry lakebed. “Free Burn” attendees are also being advised to take extra precautions around theft, given that no tickets are required for the event and there is thus no one controlling who comes on and off the site.
For fans who prefer to stay home this year, Burning Man is hosting its second annual Virtual Burn, featuring six different “virtual worlds” and a livestream.
Burning Man typically draws approximately 70,000 attendees to the Black Rock Desert, with ticket prices ranging from $475 to $1,400. When Burning Man 2020 was also cancelled due to the pandemic, approximately 3,500 people gathered in the Black Rock Desert for a non-official Burning Man event.