Playa population surges as Burning Man festival gets under way

BLACK ROCK DESERT - The 2005 Burning Man alternative-lifestyle festival popped up Monday like a great, semicircle mushroom on the arid playa of Black Rock Desert, nine miles from Gerlach in Northern Nevada. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper all day.

Winds of 30-40 mph kicked up the clay-like dust of the playa, sometimes so fiercely that it was like a winter whiteout.

But it didn't seem to bother the thousands who arrived at Black Rock City for opening day. Riding bicycles and wearing face masks or bandanas, they flocked to the central Rainbow Cafe for beverages and rode among the many statues and artworks which already decorate the flat playa. The festival motto is "No spectators."

Festival guests (at $250 per, if they bought tickets early; $300 at the gate) wore costumes of every variety, from clowns to aliens to animals. Vehicles were of a kind that never would pass an inspection, from 40-foot long sleek torpedoes to a girl riding on a "flying carpet" (powered by a hidden lawn mower engine). A mouse chased the Kitty Cat official car.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management (which licenses Burning Man) rangers joined other lawmen, promising to "enforce all the laws of Nevada."

Bettie June supervised things at the Burning Man Fun House of the Mind, a three-story combination maze, the base for the Burning Man and viewing platform where guests can work a cogwheel at night turning the Man ("and thus disorienting people who located their nests by the way the Man faced," said Bettie June).

She took media people in a Toyota covered with moose pelts (Kitty Cat) on a survey of hundreds of artworks scattered around the playa.

"Some people don't realize that Burning Man is a celebration of alternate art. We fund some pieces, others just arrive," she said.

Joseph Pred, director of emergency services, said Burning Man has "the best emergency safety system in Nevada, 50 percent faster than major metro areas."

He said the weeklong festival usually brings in 3,500 medical complaints: 50 percent to 60 percent are minor emergencies, 12.5 percent lacerations, 12.5 percent to 4.5 percent heat ills, the rest varied and an average 18 drug cases out of 35,000 people in 2004.

"Drug use is way down out here, compared to usual metro areas, because druggies know heat combines with drugs very badly," said Pred, a member of the San Francisco major outdoor events emergency commission.

Children are rarely injured, "fewer than two or three over the week," he said.

Asked about children at the festival, Ray Allen, executive project manager, pointed out that there is a specific playground area for them and for families. "Kids at Burning Man are more closely supervised by parents than when they are at home."

Burning Man runs through Sunday, with the burning of the Man Saturday night at about 9 p.m., followed Sunday night by a burning of art projects scattered about the playa. Spectators are held back from the fires by a circle of lights that flash sequentially.

n Contact Sam Bauman at or 881-1236.


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