And Then the Rain Came

Thick clouds rolled over the playa late in the afternoon.
Thick clouds rolled over the playa late in the afternoon.

Well that was a kick in the teeth.

A hot but otherwise benign Thursday afternoon turned into a vicious reminder that hey, no matter how far Burning Man has come in mastering the art of event logistics, Mother Nature still makes the final call around here.

And the severe weather that walloped Black Rock City, trapping 160 people on the playa overnight, also was a reminder to take your preparations seriously. Be ready for anything, because anything can happen.

Thick black clouds rolled over Black Rock City around 4 in the afternoon, and within an hour there was severe rain, lightning, hailstones the size of quarters and flash floods that turned the commissary and Man base areas into muddy quagmires. All movement was halted, trapping the people who hadn’t headed back to Gerlach as the storm approached.

“I’ve been coming out here for 18 years,” Coyote said, “and I’ve never seen anything like this at this time of year.

“I guess it’s a new era,” he said.

The storm’s suddenness was shocking.

Heavy Equipment crew people working in the air had to scramble to shelter as the lightning began to strike. An almost-completed shade structure blew out like a cheap umbrella. Inches-deep water gathered within minutes at the Man base and commissary, the two places which had seen the most human traffic in the days since work began. And lightning struck an isolated container.

No injuries were reported as a direct result of the storm, though, and almost as soon as the weather blew in, plans were put into place to feed and shelter the stranded personnel and to accommodate the workers who had been expected to move from Gerlach to the event site earlier in the day. All passage to the event site was halted until at least noon Friday, to give the desert floor time to dry out

Rain and hail pelted the Man base (photo courtesy KJ)
Rain and hail pelted the Man base (photo courtesy KJ)

The first wave of the storm hit in the afternoon, and another squall moved through around 9 p.m., with heavy rain at the 12 Mile entrance to the Black Rock Desert. Gate personnel who had been dispatched to the site turned away anyone seeking to enter. Lighting continued throughout the night.

Dozens of DPW and other workers gathered at the Black Rock Saloon. “I was out there this morning and opened all the windows in my trailer to let a little air in,” Zach said. “Bad timing.”

Once it was clear that the immediate danger had passed, a kind of gallows humor took hold. A call went out on the radio for “that hovercraft we’ve been meaning to get.” What had been scheduled to be a day of moving campsites to the playa turned into a rain day. But still there was the feeling that time was being lost, and the people in town were itching to help.

“I just want to be able to do something,” Stinger said.

There was nothing to do but wait.

By morning, the skies were clear and there was no wind. The playa surface had turned from its usual dusty white to a hard-packed brown. If no more rain comes, the storm could make for spectacular conditions for the event, because the rain has tamped down all the loose dust that often whips into whiteouts when the big crowds are here.

At midmorning Friday, it was eerie to see the city so empty and silent during what is normally a frenetic work week. The few vehicles that had clearance to travel kicked up no plumes. It looked like the event had already happened, and that most people had already cleared out. There wasn’t any dust blowing anywhere.

And even the people who had been stranded overnight were getting back to work. “I’ve got what I need in the (living) container,” Michael Barbarino said as he walked over to one of the technology shacks. “And it was really beautiful this morning.” He had hunkered down in his work space when the storm blew in. “I saw the clouds,” he said, “and the next thing I knew it was ‘tap tap tap’ on the roof. I came out to see what was happening and there was a lot of hail.”

Coyote checked on conditions at the 12 Mile entrance during the night
Coyote checked on conditions at the 12 Mile entrance during the night

Also in the morning, DPW volunteers and staff from Spectrum Services, the event caterer, were clearing thick heavy playa mud from the floor of the big new tent that had been erected for the first time on the playa only a couple of days earlier. Ironically, most of the Spectrum staff had been stranded in Gerlach when the storm hit, and only a skeleton crew was on hand to make sandwiches for the workers still out in the desert.

Not everyone was downcast, though. Justin, aka Get It Wet, was at breakfast in full dirt-bike regalia. “I’ve been out there since 6:30,” he said. The wet desert surface makes for better traction, he explained, “and you just lower your shoulder and roll with it.” Once he heard that no work could be started until noon, his plan became simple: “I’m going back out.”


  • Remain where you are.
  • DO NOT DRIVE your vehicle. You will become stuck and tear up the playa surface.
  • Do not ride your bike, carry it; playa mud clogs wheels and gears in just a few feet.
  • Relax and wait until conditions change.
  • Bring an extensive first aid kit.
  • Bring a battery-powered radio and tune into BMIR, 94.5 FM for updates.


To see some excellent photos from the big rain yesterday, check out sfslim’s stream on Instagram. He was right in the middle of things …

Lakes had begun to form shortly after the rain started. (Photo courtesy Seth Schrenzel)
Access to the site was quickly shut down (Photo courtesy Seth Schrenzel)
seth 2
The mud just got worse as the afternoon wore on (photo courtesy Seth Schrenzel)
Zach said outside the Black Rock Saloon that he had picked a bad time to open the windows on his trailer
The flash flooding gouged out paths in the desert
Piper raised her radio in the air to get better reception from the people on the playa
Vehicle traffic was stopped to prevent damage to the desert floor
Mike Barbarino hunkered down in his living container when the worst of the storm hit
Domo worked to expand the internet system Friday morning after the storm
Once the sun could do its thing, the water began to dry up
It was odd to see the work site so quiet and dust free

About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

69 thoughts on “And Then the Rain Came

  • For the record, I left the playa when I heard the thunder and the clouds were just about on top of us. I went into town and monitored the radio, then went back out at night with Coyote to check on things. We couldn’t get further than 12 Mile, tho, because the road was impassable. Then I hitched a ride this morning with Domo from the tech crew, who had clearance to go out.

    As you can imagine, I was torn about staying or going. The thing is, you never really know what you are in for. It could easily be days stranded. I had very little in the way of survival gear with me, and a non-four-wheel-drive vehicle. So I made the decision to leave.

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  • This is the one thing that keeps me from coming back to this awesome event: the harsh conditions. The people, art, events and all the rest are great. The weather? Not so much. By day 6, my lips were swollen up to twice their normal size (allergy to the dust?) and I was so sunburned I was physically ill. And I was only 27 at the time, not old by a long shot.

    Please consider a more habitable location in the future.

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  • Whatever comes, we will be ready, and it will be awesome!
    @ sparkle pony- This will be my 8th year, I have never been sunburned and I take any medication of any kind I may need up with me. It is a principle of “radical self reliance” not “have someone take care of you” .

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  • @sparklepony, I apologize in advance, but I feel compelled to comment. I think a lot of people will disagree with you. Buy some Benedryl and sunscreen. The elements are a huge part of the experience, for most. Moving the event to make it easier on high maintenance people is not what it is about. Burning Man is not for everyone. Maybe Coachella is a better festival for you.

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  • I am pondering possibilities here. What happens if you drive a vehicle out on the hard packed playa, and park it in a place where there happens to be a slight depression, and it just so happens to rain, forming a puddle around your vehicle. Would said vehicle then sink into the softening mud ? I am assuming of course that it would only sink in up to its underbelly.

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  • @Sparklepony

    This will be my 10th trip to BRC and I have never experienced anything you talked about. Bring everything you need, including sunscreen. Moving the event would change the whole thing from what it’s known for. If you can’t handle the conditions, don’t go. There are plenty of other festivals.

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  • I have total, complete and utter faith that John Curley – the most intrepid reporter that he is – will do whatever it takes to get the best report from the playa. I love his work, even more so because I cannot go home this year!!

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  • So, “Vehicle traffic was stopped to prevent damage to the desert floor” – does anyone else find this interesting? What if if rains like crazy on Saturday? And nobody can drive on the playa for a few days? Where are all those thousands of RVs and cars going to park? Just a thought…

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  • I feel like the harsh conditions of the playa are key to what makes Burning Man so incredible, it’s like being on another planet or reality. Dust storms are amazing and everyone looks so gorgeous covered in playa dust. This means dealing with crazy conditions sometimes but if it was easy it wouldn’t be as special. Please don’t ever move the Burn to another location. And much much gratitude to all of u who are working out there right now so the rest of us can enjoy another stellar Burn! <3

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  • It could be this year, it could be 20 years from now, but sooner or later a cloudburst like this will hit while the event is in progress.
    This will give rise to great many volumes of stories to tell.

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  • I’m NOT talking about rain “during” the event. I’m talking about pounding rain that prevents the event from starting, and prevents any vehicles from even ENTERING BRC, because BLM is protecting the desert floor.

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  • My man Rascal is out there right now. He’s a flagger/placer. He was one of the lucky ones that got off playa before it really started. He said it was really something to see.
    Sparkle Pony – I’m 63 – “not old by a long shot”.

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  • I totally agree that the harsh conditions are what make this so special. I’m just curious what the plan is, if rain prevents entry onto the playa. You have thousands of vehicles heading north on 447/34. What do they do if they can’t turn right at the entrance? Where do they go? What’s the plan? :)

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  • Wow! I envy you guys. What a thing to experience. Great respect for your efforts out there that so welcome and enable the rest of us : ).

    No matter what happens this year weather wise it’ll just make this year’s TTITD that much more memorable. I was there for 2000 and still shiver to stories told by those that were there in 1998.


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  • I remember 2001… I’ll never forget it. It rained and rained, we didn’t have the standing pools of water so much in 2001. BUT it was cold. So very, very cold. I remember the burners who didn’t place an extra tarp beneath their tent, well they slept in water. Most everyone were in tents, not as many RV’s. Oh yes there was the mud! Mud under your shoes, I was two or three inches taller. Riding the bike was horrid….

    But the rain that came Thursday reminds me of what I was told my first year (1998) be prepared for rain, torrential rain, rain that can turn the playa into a mud fest. They said your tires could sink four or more inches and take days before you’re towed out…

    Like someone else said the weather is part of the experience, a part of the magic, a slice of the personality of the burn. Rain….

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  • Pluto said; “because BLM is protecting the desert floor.”

    My kneejerk first thought was to exclaim that “the BLM isn’t protecting the desert floor, it’s DPW being sharp and preventing the whole site from being made into something decidedly NOT flat, festooned with all manner of surprise trench and rise for the enjoyment of eventual city drivers and pedestrians alike, especially after dark.” Then I remembered that BLM protects the interests of the rest of the citizens of our land and especially those that utilize the playa the rest of the year when we aren’t there. Yes, BLM likely is a stakeholder in the no drive on wet playa decision but there are good reasons for it.

    Even DPW folk prefer to NOT drive on a route that’s gotten even a little wet, never mind with inches of water and a foot or more of mud. It goes from smooth [undisturbed until dry] to looking like Patton trained his tank corps there and you’d still be tripping on the ruts in a couple years if not more. Not good. Heck, playa policy is that no wet streets be driven on during the event to prevent them from becoming all clotted with ruts and cast off mud clumps making biking so very bouncy and unpleasant. Smooth good, rutted caca.


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  • I went to Burning Man last year and I loved it better than anything I ever experienced before. I am a professional tattoo artist and painter and all I think about is how to move there join the team and live among a fraternity of artists!

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  • that last photo was gorgeous…with the bright sky and clarity of perspective…….kudos to all of you for braving the weather…see you next week…I predict an amazing burn this year!

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  • the last photo is gorgeous; the bright blue sky and clarity of perspective…kudos to all of you who are braving the weather……I predict an amazing burn for this year!

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  • If it ever seriously rains on Man Burn afternoon through Exodus Monday,
    a) people will have lots to talk about
    b) attendance the following year may shrink to a more reasonable level
    c) people will be frustrated, hungry, and thirsty
    d) people will cooperate and smile through things, BECAUSE

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  • Previous BM events had a lot of rain, all one can do is hunker down and wait it out. If you don’t move your car, it won’t sink in the mud, because immediately below your car will be dry. If you walk around just after the rain, Go barefoot. The mud will stick to your shoes and will have moon shoes as it can cake up to 3 inches. It usually takes 2 to 5 hours for the playa to dry, then it will be fine, actually a lot less dusty.

    I can remember there being a mud “mosh pit” of people wallowing in the mud. But the fly ranch hot springs was open, and people went to wash off the mud. Now it is since closed, and nobody is allowed there anymore.

    The other not springs out by the RR tracks are also closed.


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  • Hey Monkey pants, I do “Improvise !!!! Live. Experience.” otherwise I wouldn’t be going. I’m just curious, that’s it. It’s a simple non-judgemental question. What happens if thousands of vehicles can’t turn right? A couple of laps around Crystal Lake for a day or two? Will the Highway Patrol be ok with miles of vehicles parked on the swale for a couple of days? I’ve heard lots of “it was so cool when it rained on us that year” but that does not answer the actual question. What if we can’t even ENTER for a few days? Sorry, it’s just an interesting planning-puzzle to me.

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  • The harsh conditions of the playa are not the key to what makes Burning Man great.

    Expand your mind. There are any number of locations that burning man could be held that would be amazing. Some of them more hospitable. Burning man is already happening in other locations. How about Burning Man by the beach? Yum.

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  • Thanks for the pictures and updates on the severe weather. It is an increasingly harsh and unpredictable environment/world. Thank you for reminding us of it. I will pack an extra posh drive-home kit with lots of water, food that doesn’t have to be refrigerated or cooked, first aid… All you bad-asses who get this stuff ready for us despite raging storms, I seriously admire you. Wow.

    @Sparklepony, I think I saw you twerking at Distrikt, were you the one with the Maribou feather mohawk? Maybe it’s time to cut back on the collagen lip injections, yaar.

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  • What do you mean kick in the teeth? Having rain fall the weeks before Burning Man is one of the greatest gifts a bike riding burner can ask for.

    GIVE THANKS FOR THAT RAIN, and stop being so soft.

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  • If it rains Sunday thru Tuesday, there will be plenty of food left on the playa. Plenty of folks still over pack in that regard. It’ll be bad if people ever pack the right amount of food.

    Curley, heading out of the rain when you don’t have a lot of supplies is a great call. In July, we had the choice of locking down in camp or sticking to our plans and teaching a FrogBat a thing or two. I was pretty bummed about missing that. Until a day later when it still didn’t seem a great idea to be driving around. Probably would’ve been less fun to have been away from our supplies for a day or two.

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  • Holy Hell! Remain calm. Manifest the positive. Go into the desert as prepared as you could possibly be, for yourself & campmates. See it in your minds eye how beautiful and exciting your burn is gonna be. To have contrast is the best. We should only be so lucky when we’re out there. As sky opens up and the sun shines down, we can all raise our glass and howl at the wind. Lets agree that everything is working in its most perfect order, even if it appears that it’s not. (it still is) You gotta wait out the storm, duh. Everyone out there right now having the time of their lives would tell you the same. The conditions this year will be spectacular. Just be careful God damit.

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  • ’95 a mushroom cloud rained and hailed in the middle of the event… when it let up and peeps started peeping out of their tents, naked mud slip and slide and slithering mud mosh pits surrounded by drummers ensued! I’m not sure if it was the same year when it rained, whited out and lightning surrounding the burn night, everyone scattered into random tents, making new friends, the man burned by himself, upstaged by mother kick ass nature.

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  • A splendid part of the bman experience is where we create our city. The challenges are the rewards in the desert. To experience a whiteout, squall, safely view a flash flood, man, you should count your blessings! So few can boast of such a visceral connection with nature at its core. You will always remember this beauty and power, embrace it. Brag about the temporary assimilation.

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  • Hugs Love to all of you working on the playa THANK YOU!!!!
    Goddess Haven is returning to the Playa this year for the 9th year.
    Starting out as one guy every year & ending up being taken in with other tribes
    or helping other campers on the playa. Everyone is welcome in this camp.
    I miss all the love, care & kindness I have felt on the playa.
    This is Crystals & Gems year on the playa Gifts from mother earth to share with all of you! Preparation are being made ready for it all Shade, rain & dust storm shelter
    Tarps from wall to wall thank you all for giving me a place to call Home.
    Sharing love with the DPW , the Rangers & all the crews that makes this such a special place!!!! Thank you. Goddess Haven Naked Gourmet

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  • There is talk of moving Burning Man to another site, a giant ranch Larry is looking at on the other side of the mountain, which would be private property rather than BLM, and accommodate more people, perhaps be open year-round. But it would be in the same corner of Nevada, and susceptible to the same kind of weather.
    Great comments, everybody.

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  • WoW! thanks for the blog update & photos. hope you saw RAINBOWS :) look up & watch the STARS tonight (August 10-13) for the PERSEIDS meteor showers. wish we were all home now PLAYA to view these spectacular events. thx 4 all your smart hard work … CU soon!

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  • PS: Driving in from LA — if anyone has an extra ticket for $300 or less, please let me know. have room for at least 1 person & may be able to arrange a ride for more than 1, or deliver forgotten items, etc. LA’Angel

    Enjoyed the 2007 Playa RAINbows … anyone remember that massive twisted truck?

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  • Moving the event to an more hospitable location would ruin it. The harsh conditions keep the partiers away. Plus It makes it so you have to suffer. All great spiritual awakenings happen through suffering. Remove the suffering, all you have left is a big party, which is not nearly as cool or worth it.

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  • I just love reading all the blogs about the city being built. Gotta hand it to you guys and gals building our city at this time. You all ROCK, totally. Thank you and Dusty HUGS for all your efforts on our behalf.

    I look forward to our time together this year again, 4th time going Home. Seems like I’ve had it easy in the past years on the Playa, due to good weather and lots of dust. Only one time it rained a little on us in 2008. I have been prepared each time for extreme weather conditions. Looks like this year might be a little different for me and my sweetheart, if these storms keep up into the week of our burn.

    Love, Honor and Respect Always,

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  • At ’95 we had a 200″ sunnami from Gerlach that leveled everything… platforms fell onto tents, and when it was over nothing was standing; not to mention the lightning that went round and round that year….

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  • Those of u that are waiting for things to dry out at the playa,
    There is some extra places to park around fernley.walmarts parking lot can’t
    hold everyone…there is a empty near lowes and side streets behind walmart…and of course
    near terribles casino….good luck, and thanks for supporting our community.

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