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Burning Man Journal
All The News That's Fit To Burn: 1998 Winter Newsletter

Back to Black Rock

By Darryl Van Rhey

Our story so far...

Last year we relocated Burning Man, moving from our home of seven years in northern Nevada's Black Rock Desert to a neighboring playa called Hualapai Flat. Contrary to popular report, this decision was initiated by the Burning Man Project. Early in 1997 the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that regulates these public lands, invited us to apply for a special recreation permit at Black Rock. Burning Man organizers, however, took the initiative. To nearly everyone's surprise, we decided to relocate. Experience in the previous year had taught us the inherent danger of combining automobile traffic with public camping. We felt a change of venue offered us the opportunity to reform our city and establish new rules. Our goal was to create an ordered, safe and self-regulating community.Our public record in 1997 speaks for itself.

The Washoe County Sheriff's office reports one misdemeanor arrest and no on-site auto accidents during our 5-day event - an extraordinary record for any community of over 9,000 people. Likewise, REMSA, our emergency medical service provider, reported only minor injuries - mostly burns and dehydration - and fire damage, a much-discussed hazard, was virtually non-existent. The 8 fire trucks and 44 professional firefighters that Burning Man retained were left idle. Lastly, authorities in adjacent Humbolt and Pershing counties encountered no problems, the Nevada Highway Patrol informs us their enforcement actions, mainly speeding tickets, were reduced a full 50% from 1996, and the Bureau of Land Management witnessed no violations of federal law.

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None of this is a surprise. We've always known that in any creatively interactive community, crime and reckless behavior recede to a very narrow margin of activity. In truth, it was the misadventures of cars, not the misbehavior of people, that most concerned us in 1997. New rules last year banned all unnecessary auto traffic. Black Rock City became a haven for pedestrians and bicycles. Its citizens were freed to wander on the surreal surface of the desert without fear of colliding with moving vehicles (encounters with motorized couches, living rooms, whales, robots and crucifixions excepted).

Another major innovation was a self-contained system of streets. This afforded people an address, a needed sense of where they were within our city. In addition to channeling traffic and creating better access for emergency vehicles, this plan also produced a denser pattern of settlement. Neighbors neighbored as never before. Personal interaction increased by a quantum leap and theme camps, perhaps the surest index of creative effort in the world of Burning Man, more than quadrupled. The moral is apparent: order and radical self-expression can readily coincide.

Our Plan in 1998

Armed with this knowledge, we have applied to the Bureau of Land Management to return to the Black Rock Desert. We intend to locate our city at the southern end of this desert within the boundaries of Washoe County. Our new location will be on the open playa far from any vegetation, thus eliminating the need for large-scale fire protection (the largest part of our bill in 1997). A fire suppression service will be hired. However, our experience has shown us fire can be easily contained. Last year we limited campfires in our city to designated sites. This year we will fabricate special fireplaces designed to contain windblown embers and protect the surface of the playa. In 1997 we also located all fire art within a public space that fronted our city. As a result of these policies, any danger posed by uncontrolled burning was completely eliminated. Indeed, our chief reference in applying for a permit in 1998 is Washoe County itself.

Throughout our event we worked cooperatively with public agencies and County health, fire, and police departments have certified the result.Sensitive environments bordering the playa will also be protected. Since it is our plan to restrict the flow of motor traffic within our city and to completely ban the use of cars beyond our borders, it follows that any threat to the surrounding environment is virtually non-existent (a trash containment fence will also be constructed to define our perimeter and collect windblown debris). Furthermore, we plan to work cooperatively with both the BLM and Washoe and Pershing County law enforcement to prevent the entry of unauthorized vehicles.

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This year the layout of Black Rock City will insulate pedestrian and bicycle paths from incoming traffic. Another change will make it possible to camp in a special low-density zone. Now participants who prefer the quiet and solitude of the open playa will be free to locate beyond the bustling thoroughfares of our city. To gain this suburban luxury, however, they must agree to park their vehicle and portage their belongings to their campsite.

It should be noted that Burning Man organizers are also discussing possible sites with private landholders in Nevada and we may submit applications for the future use of other federal lands. Yet it is really the dynamism of our community, its vitality as a cultural force, that will establish, protect and sustain the site of our annual city. We have always been a nomadic community, just as the statue of the Burning Man is an ephemeral object. It is the symbol of a covenant, a new sense of connection we have gained, and if this process resides anywhere, it exists within and through the experience and passionate commitment of participants. Black Rock City is a state of mind and Burning Man is no more than a giant X that marks this spot.