Setup Cleanup


“Look, Mom we’ve done it again!” It’s overwhelming to sit and think of just how we manage to pull if off every year, but we do it because we can. In just over 10 weeks’ time, we journeyed to Mars to be humbled by its vast kiln-scape, rolled out this huge sculpture-city, lived in its Felinni movie vortex for about a week, then pried it up and packed it away for the winter, leaving literally no trace. Boy, are my arms tired!

Last year, the DPW had to make some tough decisions regarding our labor force, because the roster had grown to unaffordable numbers. We went from the format of the past of having the crew “just show up” to creating a limited number of job slots that required actual qualifications. This change created a much more efficient and streamlined crew and an more professional overall atmosphere of “skilled” labor. By the time we were actually hammering in the streets, the crew was a well-oiled machine. We accomplished building and striking a fatter city in record time with about a hundred less people. Things do get better with age.

Another huge reason that things went infinitely smoother this year was almost complete elimination of the stress related to tools and materials due to a crack purchasing and receiving team and separate tools for separate departments. As good old Ben Franklin used to say, “Good fences make for good neighbors.” What a concept-having all the materials ready and waiting, and the tools to bang ’em all together! If we keep working to better this system, we can imagine constructing Black Rock City (BRC) without daily Reno runs! You heard me. We could do it anywhere!

It was this kind of preparedness that we took to the site on August1 to drive the first “Gold Stake” that marked the center of BRC and the sacred spot where the Man would stand and burn.

This is when the survey crew took over. After five times previously setting up this design, most of the many desert kinks had been worked out. The street flags sprang up like a children’s pop-up book, and it was as if the city was eager to be built and lived in. After four days of a shade-less and sunburned survey laid out the main city grid, the crew completed six more days of detail survey work. Each of 153 intersections had four corners to be flagged. The survey marked over three-quarters of a mile of promenade, a port and starboard plaza, all of the Center Camp details, DPW Depot, the Greeters Station, the Gate and Gate Road, a walk-in camping area, an airport, a sanitation depot-or giant litter box if you will-and 7 miles of a pentagon-shaped perimeter fence. The survey defined a five-story lighthouse with 16 compass points and an equally tall Temple of Joy standing seven football fields away but lined up well enough to allow a laser to pass from the lighthouse through a target gap in this wondrous structure. Anything else that would be needed for the setting of this giant party table, the details survey would mark out. Whew! “And how was your day, dear?”

Stipulations of our permit to operate, granted by the government, forbid any construction on the playa until August 10. On this day, DPW in all her rough desert glory was ready to move from the work ranch 12 miles north to the BRC construction site on the playa. This operation always has the excitement of a “D-day” charge, and this year’s coordination was smoother than ever. It all boils down to preparation, and with a strong middle management team in place, things went up with an almost mundane, business-as-usual air. That was OK by us! In that desert world of troubleshooting, breakdowns, and general standard chaos, we like mundane, yes we do!

Anyone who has attended the event has seen the hundreds of structures and buildings, acres of shade, art and sculpture, Center Camp’s amazing cat’s cradle café, and the whole kit and kabootle. It’s a hard stretch to remember that it all was trucked in and set up in about 2 weeks’ time. It’s also very satisfying to see that the participants are also vastly improving in their camp set-ups and clean-ups. We often see teams of rental trucks arrive, then crews of carpenters, builders, and such jump out of the vehicles and start working. About 24 hours later, a beautiful oasis of palm trees and margarita bars sits there. I’ve even seen pool tables, of all things, and now sushi is becoming popular for crying out loud! It’s interesting to be sitting in a luxurious camp, sipping a fresh, hot cappuccino trying to think of all the months of effort, planning, purchasing, transporting, etc. needed to get this hot quaff to a place like the Black Rock Desert. Next year, we’re requesting a Star Trek transporter beam.

In the meantime, the road crew kept busy hammering in four t-stakes per intersection and strapping street signs and reflective tape to each one. These, along with over 5,000 guiding road pegs, served to sculpt the enormous amphitheater of a road system called Black Rock City. ‘Twas a thing of beauty, by god!

One of the most significant defining features of BRC were the wooden, kerosene-lit lamp posts, or more affectionately, the spires. These spires were the birthday candles on the cake, and with the expansion of the promenade, and the addition of the port and starboard plazas, DPW placed about 50 more than last year, bringing the count to 210. Each one required four 4-foot stakes for its support, driven in with sledgehammers. It’s a labor of love, for sure, but the final effect commanded awe and wonderment as the promenade seemed to stretch to infinity. Now add a laser light shooting right down the middle of it, and just what kind of truly amazing place was that anyway?!

Among the darkest and most unappreciated, unsung heroes of the construction of BRC is the dirty old 7½ – mile garbage fence. Seldom photographed and unadorned, it wraps endlessly around the city, misunderstood and ignored-unless somebody crashes it. After all, it was the border that marked our territory, and over the centuries, countless wars have been fought and lives lost over the concept surrounding a simple fence. It served to create an “us and them,” and considering the swirling politics that encompass our event, the existence of a fence on federal land became very significant. But as far as the DPW crew was concerned, it was over 5,000 t-stakes that had to be pounded in and truckloads of klutzy orange garbage fence that needed to be tied on with enough binder twine to wrap a planet. This fence also went up in record time (about 5 days), and when properly considered, that task really is one of the most amazing feats of building BRC.


The clean-up part of the event has always been the dark side of the moon of BRC. After all, ain’t much glamour in picking up trash. But it truly is the most unique and special aspect of our event-or of any event. Certainly, no other community our size exists without a garbage service. But we do. To illustrate the magnitude of this accomplishment, here are a few quotes from a BLM news release dated October 12, 2002:

“The 2002 event reached a record 29,083 participants with activities lasting 7 days. Even with a 14 percent increase from last year, Burning Man employees and volunteers efficiently and effectively cleaned up the area.”

“The Black Rock City cleanup was an outstanding effort by an organization that is committed to protecting the playa.”

“Three inspection transects accumulated less than 2 square feet of debris in 300,000 square feet (6.9 acres), which is well within permit cleanup requirements. According to BLM staff, after some moisture to the playa, visitors will not be able to tell there was an activity of this proportion on the playa.”

“The BLM found no evidence of environmental damage caused by Burning Man.”

Now that’s something that we all can be very proud of. Over the years, our community has been able to forge an exemplary mentality with regard to refuse that is virtuously nonexistent in the rest of our gluttonous and wasteful nation. Again, this year, if not for the efforts of the majority of our citizens to pick up after themselves, the job of cleaning up with limited time and limited crew would have been an impossible one.

But, of course, considering the magnitude of our event, something will always be left to clean up, and we are driven by high standards. But these kinds of standards are extremely costly in hundreds of man-hours, thousands of dollars in equipment rentals and fuel, and the generally maddening nature of this kind of work. The BLM grants us only 30 days to make this happen, and this year we were hit with enormous obstacles, mostly caused by the 3 days of dust storms that coincidentally (?) hit on the Tuesday after the Burn. To start with, many participants understandably were forced off the playa without much of a chance to clean up anything. Others who remained found that anything and everything in and around their camps were surrounded by deep and unmovable dust dunes. Many campsites were filled with debris of all kinds. Very disheartening. We’re talking about 4 square miles of this mess, and the clean-up crew was looking at what seemed like mountain ranges of dirty dishes. The lesson here is that a lot of this trouble could have been avoided by daily camp cleaning instead of waiting for the annual post-burn dust storm; the clean-as-you-go method. We of the DPW clean-up crew would like the phrase “Clean As You Go” to be next year’s flagship slogan, right up there with Leave No Trace.. The importance can’t be overstated.

Another big pain in the head (I guess) was the 7½ -mile fence line that created-what-do-ya-know-7½ – miles of 4-foot dunes. (Groan!) Time to start using the old noggin and create some solutions, because the surrounding communities, the BLM, the environment, and even the playa herself doesn’t care about the excuses, they just need it put right.

So we started by getting all objects off the playa. We had about 2 weeks to do this, and the job employed every vehicle, trailer, flatbed, and hitch that we could muster. If anyone was leaving the playa with anything half empty, they were turned around and sent back to grab at least one more thing. And this work was of the nastiest nature. Everything was heavy, bulky, filthy, burned, dusty, and crusty, and camp morale became a manager’s big challenge. But we kept griping down to a minimum and started to take great pride in watching the city slowly disappear and the playa reappear.

Next, our attentions turned to the remaining aforementioned dust dunes, and the concentrations of litter that were heaviest in the more public area of the city; the esplanade, the promenade, Center Camp, the Man, theme camps, art installations, etc.

But first, the dunes. Through a lot of experimenting, we found that if you dragged a big 50-foot-long chain link fence behind the biggest truck we had, at about 30 miles an hour, about 8 or 10 passes over a dune would obliterate and flatten it. Quite a spectacular sight, actually, but quite a bumpy dust ride for the driver-kidney hell, dude! It was sort of like dragging the infield of a baseball diamond on a very grand scale. So for the next 2 weeks, six of our biggest, priciest trucks spent the days going back and forth, over and over never-ending dunes, creating mile-high plums of dust, breathing dust, eating dust, farting dust. Other dunes that were filled with loads of debris couldn’t be busted that way without scattering the debris everywhere. They were specially marked and had to be front-loaded into a dump truck and hauled to private land.

Another battle that we are slowly but surely winning is burn scars. Our ever-evolving methods of dealing with this issue continue to improve, and we are almost there. We’re still finding that many burning items were spilling over the platforms and burn blankets that were provided, leaving scars anyway. This realization, of course, allows a simple fix by extending the blankets and putting skirts around the platforms. We also found that the dune-dragging method also worked for removing the scars. Fancy that!

Firewood debris and bark was also a large issue out there. It created minefields of itty bits of stuff that never ended. This menace can be easily remedied by something as simple as mandatory woodbins. It’s not a new concept, and the problem would be solved.

In the meantime, the rest of the crew spent the next 14 days walking along in organized lines picking up litter, or MOOP as it’s now called: “material out of place.” These line sweeps have appropriately been dubbed “zombie walks.” This work is truly the most mind-boggling brain fry of all DPW tasks, but it simply must be done, and a better way has yet to be found to do it, considering the amount of area that has to be covered. The Playa Zamboni has not yet been invented.

Here are the top ten categories of MOOP that were found on the desert:

  1. Wood chips and bark
  2. Cigarette butts
  3. Bottle caps
  4. Zip ties
  5. Tent stakes, rebar, etc.
  6. Jewelry (beads, sequins, costume stuff, etc)
  7. Spent fireworks
  8. Nails and screws
  9. Candy wrappers
  10. Coinz

And, of course, an entire spectrum of a zillion other dropped and forgotten things.

Each and every one of these items has as explanation. (Dropped jewelry can be explained by imagining the scenario of someone’s necklace breaking in the heat of fun, for example.) All of them revolve around the concept of participants not having the mantra of Leave No Trace in their minds absolutely 100 percent of the time. A spent firework casing is something that is not likely to be hunted for in the dark after the oohs and ahhs have subsided, but it has to disappear sometime, if we want to be granted another permit next year. And candy wrappers? Come on, people!! Zip-ties are another good example of folks losing focus in the heat of packing up and leaving. The knife comes out, the ties are cut, and the tarp is rolled. We found thousands of them!

Last year, the award for most abundant MOOP went to pistachio shells, and a campaign was launched. All year long we trumpeted the message to the masses to watch your shells, and by god it worked! We found almost none. We can change the world!

Now about those wood chips . . .

So, Mom, we did it again, and it’s time for that annual table-leg-sized cigar and a hearty toast. Each year really does get better, smoother, and slicker. Can one even imagine Burning Man 2010? Just like climbing a staircase, it’s painfully obvious how much more needs to be accomplished, but equally as rewarding to look back and see how far you have climbed. We’ve got that fire stoked up and burning good, and the train keeps-a-rollin’! (All night long!)

See ya all, next year!

Tony Perez aka Coyote Nose
Site Manager – Black Rock City