Each year in an atmosphere of awe and respect, the Department of Public Works (DPW) revisits the vacuum of the Nevada high desert with a circus train of a city locked and loaded into the chambers ready to be shot onto the playa. The feeling is equally as awesome to reduce it all to nothing more than a memory less than three months later. This is the satisfaction that comes from setting up and tearing down Black Rock City, located on the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada. This whirlwind project encompasses massive construction, deconstruction, and playa restoration techniques that span the entire year, including work weekends through the winter and spring and full production summer through October. This achievement requires the collective efforts of a solid management staff and a crew of skilled labor and volunteers numbering about 120. The crew has committed their summer to mastering challenging workloads in the extreme conditions of remote high desert within a short window of time. The complexity of the job and the schedule leave little room for setbacks.
And, of course, as the city grows and matures, so do the challenges and successes. The goal of advancing a project of this magnitude smoothly and efficiently is forever a moving target that requires spontaneity and inventive intuition. Every year DPW welcomes this challenge.
Streamlining and fine-tuning the many moving parts and systems that accomplish the creation of The Man’s summer city require an ever-improving, professional caliber of crew. Coming from a history where the challenge was to attract anyone out to the harsh desert at all, DPW has made steady progress over the years to create a professional and safe working environment. This objective is being achieved by the creation of a management council, a solid middle-management team, and opening a flourishing conduit for skilled labor and fresh volunteers. The Burning Man Project, in general, has always been a largely volunteer-based operation, and DPW has embraced this concept. Housing and feeding the crew, creating a pleasant and congenial living atmosphere, all work wonders in improving overall morale, which in turn keeps production smooth — always an acute challenge for the department. Strengthening relations with local neighbors allowed for workable accommodations in the immediate area. Concentration of resources has improved chances for giving the crew a timely, healthy diet and social outlets for relaxation, which creates a strong, enthusiastic crew who get things done professionally and safely.
Survey and City Design
This year’s city design was greatly impacted due to the joint decisions of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the event’s landlord, and BRC, LLC, to relocate the site 1.2 miles northeast. Location, location, location as they say, and new turf afforded a fresh energy to the entire city. Furthering the entire change of perspective, the city was rotated on its axis to the tune of fifteen degrees east, creating a very different point of view. Black Rock Desert expands to the north (if a V shape), so relocating the city to the northeast widened the distance between the mountain ranges giving everything a much-welcomed, wider, open feel.
The city itself widened a touch, but the major changes were in the Gate road and the plazas. Because of the greater distance from the eight mile event entrance, it was decided to make the Gate road a straight shot from the Gate to the Greeters station. Other city changes were to the plazas. Due to the success they have been enjoying, the plazas at radial roads 4:30 and 7:30 were given entrance keys where they intersected out on the Esplanade, and the plaza circles themselves were set close to the outer edges of the city with widened streets, lined with spire lamp posts to announce them. This worked to channel much of the communal activity laterally into the back blocks of the city, creating a capillary effect of Burning Man energy. These concepts will continue to be developed and improved upon. Aside from these changes, the city remained a circular clock design with an open key-shaped top, expanding to the open playa. It’s a design that we have grown into, and hasn’t needed to change.
The Fence Line
Excellent weather conditions and a fired-up crew combined for installation of the 7.5 -mile perimeter fence in yet another new record time of just under 2 days. This work is all done by hand with 20 to 30 pound, hand-held, t-stake pounders, with fencing hand-tied using twine. The perimeter fence is the first construction allowed on the playa by BLM and acts to establish construction-site boundaries. Over the years, this part of the project has won solid respect from some local neighbors, who understand all too well the efforts required to install a fence of this magnitude. Building a fence on federal land has always been a point of contention, and this fence is no different, as it establishes the temporary “real estate” that will become Black Rock City. Like it or not, the fence is the first tangible evidence that the event is to be underway soon.
Upon completion of the fence, the floodgates open wide for the actual construction of Black Rock City’s public infrastructure and all work and activity quickly ramps up to a maximum.
In years past, this time has always brought considerable stress and confusion, with simultaneous construction of several very important civic structures. With many months of planning, including integrated meetings with other departments, Gantt project schedules and timelines are created. Through organized transportation staging and dispatching, along with vastly improved communications, the city went up in 2006 with assembly-line smoothness.
Of course, troubleshooting will always be a valuable skill, as the environment continues to lob curve balls, but it’s nowhere near the drain on resources that it used to be. Handling the elements plays a very large part of the crew’s learning curve, and it has spawned elevated and unique skills. The elements always have a way of staying ahead, and every year Mother Nature dishes out a new roadblock. At least she keeps the job interesting.
After an event that bulges to a population of nearly 40,000, one thing that continues to hold Black Rock City a breed apart is the shared mantra of Leave No Trace. The motto works because people do it! The time on the playa has always instilled hope to see that people can change their attitudes toward simple things like litter and garbage, and it rejuvenates the spirit to see a community of this size where the majority of its population responds and works to clean and restore the playa. The DPW could not do this job on its own. Teaching participants time-proven methods of finding the smallest bits of Matter Out Of Place (MOOP) was another success of the clean-up crew. But of course, there is always room for improvement. Restoration of the playa happens in many stages, starting with removal of the city infrastructure itself.
Again in 2006, prior planning and organization were the keys to efficiency. The process of removing the city infrastructure resembles flipping the set-up plan upside down. In many cases, the last thing on-playa is the first thing off. The ongoing overhaul of Black Rock Station has made this process organized and accountable. Storage and inventory get better every year due to closer attention to the staging of materials and items, with an eye toward reusing them next year. Systems are now in place to track everything that goes through the gates of the DPW ranch and storage facility, located just 12 miles north of the event site.
Despite well-documented, collective efforts to pack out everything that participants bring in, an element of debris remains. The clean-up crew still finds random sofas, bicycles, or an abandoned camp now and then. Teams also remove things that escaped the attention of some participants like oil drips from vehicles, or bark and wood splinters from wood piles. Another growing issue is abandoned tent stakes left in the ground after failed attempts to remove them. Certain methods help pry up items that some participants simply don’t know about. Education is the obvious solution. Either way, as the event must meet very high standards for restoring the playa to its pristine state, the DPW is ultimately responsible to make it happen. Systems and methods for achieving this goal have improved over the years. As skills grow, so does the city, and so do the tasks at hand. Staying ahead of debris removal continues to challenge the clean-up crew, and the time allowed to bring the playa to the required level remains about two weeks.
Burn Platforms / Burn Scars
To accommodate the unique element of fire play, survival and respect for the playa drive unique solutions to playa surface impact problems such as ash and scarring. This aspect of clean-up truly is an ongoing experiment, and every year has successes and failures. A very large success in 2005 was a new burn platform design that treated many of the headaches from years past. These enormous, bowl-shaped, hunks of steel were the result of salvaged ends of rail tank cars. These new platforms sat up, off the playa surface, with high sides that solved the problem of burning debris spilling onto the playa. Expense, logistics, and uncertainty about effectiveness limited the new design to four examples, but the new burn platforms show movement in the right direction: elevated metal platforms seem to be the key in protecting the playa from scarring. The management of burn platforms is an ongoing and evolving system that continues to change as we learn and discover the changing behavior of BRC citizens. In the years to come, we will continue to strive to make this process a more efficient and clean system that can manage burns better. The elevated burn platforms, used by some of the large art burns, have proven successful and increased resources for burn platforms are being explored. Several tests were completed in 2005 and 2006 with artists, and the results show that it will be difficult to improve upon these time-tested burn-scar prevention techniques.
Playa Restoration works primarily as a training ground for high impact Leave No Trace Techniques, Practices, and Solutions. Go through one Post-Burn Season with us and you can pretty much build and burn to your hearts desire, because you’ll know first hand what it takes to Leave No Trace. Playa Restoration’s objective is to restore the Black Rock Desert to a condition where it can heal itself. BROOMS, RAKES, SHOVELS, magnet sweepers, and bare hands: these are Playa Restoration’s tools. Playa Restoration is the coup de grace to the great disappearing act that is Black Rock City. With any luck, the playa gets a good winter with lots and lots of rain. We return early summer for the Annual Playa Restoration Work Weekend, and assess how the playa has healed over the year. If all goes well, we will have found no trace. The cycle begins anew and we welcome the return of Black Rock City. It is what we practice with Leave No Trace that allows us to burn. And as we burn so shall we restore. And as we restore so shall we burn again…
Playa Restoration is divided into two specialized teams: Line Sweeps Division and Special Forces, both created to mirror two important aspects of the Burning Man event, THEME CAMPS and Art Projects. Simply put, Line Sweeps is to the city camping grid what Special Forces is to art impact and open playa MOOP conditions.
Playa Restoration Special Forces
The small but efficient Special Forces crew has earned its mighty reputation for being the bad ass, super science, away team that gets down n’ dirty, making burn scars and other MOOP disasters disappear, and making it look easy. Global Positioning System (GPS) technology was used to navigate through the now virtually invisible outer regions of Black Rock City with the purpose of tracking and eliminating the impact left behind by art as well as other random hot spots and conditions not worthy of a Leave No Trace playa. A list of art location GPS waypoints was compiled with an assessment of impact and MOOP conditions delivered to the ARTery.
Playa Restoration Line Sweeps Division
The Line Sweeps Division is the heart of Playa Restoration. Day after day, crew line up, arms width apart with their MOOP bucket in hand on a search and destroy mission for all things MOOP. They are Leave No Trace’s last line of defense in the war against MOOP. In 2006 the Line Sweeps Division took their game to the next level by tracking MOOP trends, severity, and impact within the city camping blocks and assigning a color code: red (high impact trace), yellow (moderate impact trace), and green (low to no impact trace). The result of this effort became the 2006 MOOP Map. From what the line sweeps learned, high impact red accounted for approximately 20% of the city grid, and moderate impact yellow and low impact green were in a dead heat with 40% each. With a more mindful effort yellow could go green; with less mindfulness, yellow could slack into red. The red zones not only need to be more mindful but they need to strategize and rise to the challenge. Who are you betting on for 2007? Go Green!!!
As a result of all of these activities, the Burning Man event continues to survive. As the community grows, so do DPW’s methods and attitudes. It’s an ongoing learning process, and every year brings new chances to improve. This event continually renews the dedication to its own future, and this future burns as bright as its own fires. See you all at the next burn!
Tony “Coyote” Perez and Dominic “DA” Tinio