DPW Work Ranch


DPW Work Ranch Experience

The “80 Acres” Work Ranch is an interesting phenomenon on its own, alongside Black Rock City itself. For two months surrounding the event, the Work Ranch fosters its own culture among the workers who contribute their energies to the chores and projects of the Department of Public Works (DPW). The absence of common amenities like running water, communications, shopping, and mass media force workers to deal with each other and themselves at a basic level. People band together, create their own camps and temporary structures, and share and trade precious supplies.

The environment constantly challenges expectations and preparations: Winds, dust, high elevation, and oppressive heat combine to rankle and unnerve even the most prepared and dedicated volunteer. At a certain point, a grand exodus from the ranch marks the genesis of Black Rock City. The move uproots the entire workforce and transplants them in the desert, where the pace picks up and excitement builds. Meanwhile, “back on the ranch,”fabrication continues at the shop, as the few remaining trailers, materials, furniture, and equipment are whisked away to the event site.


Nevada Property caretakers, Bill and Metric. Photo: Flynn

For part of this time, an event happens. The crew has a saying that Burning Man is like an 8-day distraction from DPW. Conditions at the Work Ranch during this time support that conclusion. That thriving center of activity becomes a ghost town. Surveying the scene feels much like the open playa does to a Burning Man participant who sees it for the first time without Black Rock City. The absence of a life force suddenly becomes conspicuous.

That force has been funneled into the desert, where it drives production of the event’s annual miracle. Then the process reverses, and the ranch is re-inhabited as a base to support cleanup. Making the city disappear is arguably a less exciting effort than making it rise from nothing, and everyone starts to reach the limits of tolerance. People need a week or so to settle in and readjust to the shift. Some people are already in what could be called emergency retreat mode, impatiently anticipating escape from the desert. Others without plans seem to experience a growing inertia.

As Work Ranch Manager, Matthew “Metric” Ebert had this prespective of the ranch:

“After last year’s event, I still had a lot of momentum from my first DPW experience. I stayed on at the Work Ranch longer than most, working on winterizing things. I began working on the ranch again last spring-and here I remain. My responsibilities in DPW have never [been] a cut and dried affair, but the Lord loves those who figure it out for themselves, and that has certainly been the predominant guide for me”


Truck dumping decomposed granite for roads on the Work Ranch. Photo: Flynn

The DPW “A-Team” crew began work in the spring, removing tons of debris in and around the ranch house on the new Black Rock Station property. The team worked on the house itself to make it a useful structure, built roads, prepared space for concrete pads, and spread gravel. Construction of the new shop building required new stem walls and a concrete floor, along with repetitive re-tightening of 15,000 bolts and nuts. As large as the project was, the new building has changed the way DPW operates.

The team also built a new pump house and installed generators and an inverter system. Other additions include satellite Internet access and expansion of the phone system to decrease the separation of the Ranch from the rest of the world. Other projects made simple quality-of-life improvements on the Work Ranch, providing a learning process for everyone, with so many varied tasks involved. As the first volunteer work weekends approached, attention began to shift from construction on Black Rock Station to construction of the city infrastructure.

Crews were living and working on the ranch much earlier than usual in 2001, and the need quickly became apparent to find a cook to feed the construction workers. This daunting task required a new level of flexibility, as other DPW staff often shifted to work in support of the commissary. Throughout the summer and right up to Thanksgiving, resident staff labored to maintain its infrastructure, including working with electricians on installation and maintenance of generators and wiring. They also, set up cooking equipment, provided propane and water, constructed shade, sorted and stored donated food, and even washed dishes and cooked meals.


Photo: Flynn

As infrastructure at the Work Ranch expanded, so did the lead resident supervisory role. When DPW volunteers left in September, the position of Ranch Manager was established to provide ongoing supervision of the property, inventory management, and background support for volunteers, department liaisons, senior staff, the commissary, and artists in residence. Just as the support provided by the commissary allows crews to focus on their work, the continuing support of DPW facilitates everything from individual art installations to construction of the Man itself.

These support responsibilities became more complicated with the establishment of Black Rock Station and its anticipated year-round operation. Volunteers sometimes need tents, flashlights, or phone and email access. Artists sometimes request to borrow tools, and people involved in different projects sometimes compete for scarce resources. This welter of conflicting needs demands a careful balance between being a good host and facilitator and challenging people to be responsible for their own survival and success. Future plans call for improved definition of these boundaries and responsibilities.


Photo: Flynn

Expanding the role of the Work Ranch will involve many changes in DPW. The construction of more permanent structures is the first step to making the Work Ranch a more useful resource. Construction there has in the past resembled that of Black Rock City: Structure designs assumed a need for temporary shelter from summer weather. These resources then laid dormant during the winter, until DPW arrived the following summer to pick up the pieces and put them together again. Black Rock Station has a more permanent goal. Generators are housed in stout buildings, and wiring runs underground.

As of this writing, Black Rock Station stands sturdily on it foundations, while many temporary structures on the Work Ranch lie crushed under the weight of winter weather. In the future, more durable construction will be the norm. The availability of fresh water from the well on the Black Rock Station property will also enable great changes. Plans include planting of many trees and a commissary garden, and a septic system is in the works.


Photo: Flynn

Management of materials on the Work Ranch also requires attention. Early in the season, DPW staff began an ambitious attempt to prepare a comprehensive inventory of the property. The expansion to Black Rock Station and the onset of the department’s core mission interrupted that effort, but in the coming year it will be a key priority. The inventory will categorize the types of materials stored at the Work Ranch and organize “lots” for specific categories. This year Burning Man began to address the liability and logistical issues of providing storage for others outside the immediate organization.Having specific places for things will do much to alleviate the confusion of the past and simplify transportation to and from the event site.

Designating shipping containers for department storage will increase security. Placing these containers farther apart and reconfiguring their alignment will also improve ease of loading. The inventory database will catalog valuable materials and equipment owned by the organization, documented by photographs and other relevant information, such as serial numbers or VINs. One function related to inventory is accumulation of data from fuel logs, most notably the log for gasoline.

Water, gasoline, flashlights, or dry socks-the high country of the Black Rock Desert is always a place of scarce resources. It’s the Work Manager’s job to help husband them.