Burning man, extreme environmental health.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
When it comes to celebrations and festivals of the strange and unusual the U.S. can certainly claim its fair share. Australia may have the Tuna Tossing Festival but we have the Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival. Thailand has the Monkey Buffet Festival but we have Frozen Dead Guy Days in Colorado. Spain has the Baby Jumping Festival and we counter with the Miss Crustacean Hermit Crab Beauty Contest. When it comes to celebrations designed to elevate the creative soul of the masses, however, nothing on this planet comes close to Burning Man.
Before you can truly understand why this festival is important on an environmental level--after all, that's what we are interested in--you must have a sense of what Burning Man is as well as where Burning Man is. Neither is all that easy to put into words. The truth of the matter is you cannot simply describe Burning Man . . . you must experience it to understand it.
The true origins of Burning Man are the subject of much conjecture and myth but it's safe to say that it began as a spontaneous act of erecting and igniting an effigy on a beach in San Francisco. A good fire always attracts a crowd, and as the yearly event began to attract more people than the beach could support, it eventually found its current home in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, 100 miles north of Reno. The Black Rock Desert is home of the world land speed record and one of only a handful of places in the world where you can literally set your car on cruise control and go sit in the back seat and have a sandwich. It is big, it is flat, it is 1,000 square miles of dry lake bed, commonly known as the playa. It is the last place a clear-thinking human would want to hold a festival. But sanity has never been a requirement for a festival!
The Burning Man "event" takes place for eight days at the end of August and early September. This year it will attract over 50,000 people, and as the week progresses it will for a time be one of the largest cities in the state of Nevada. It is billed as an experiment in radical self-expression and self-sufficiency What that boils down to is almost anything goes and what you need to survive you must bring with you or do without. That means food, shelter, clothing (optional), and especially water. No grocery stores or showers or Home Depots are within 100 miles, nor is a source of potable drinking water. You are at the mercy of the wind, the heat, the cold, and the alkali whiteouts that may last for many hours. Once admitted to the event, you must park your vehicle and you cannot drive around. With the exception of law enforcement almost all travel is by bicycle and you cannot leave the event unless you want to buy another $400 ticket to get back in.
By 1999 the Burning Man event had grown in population to the point that it had become necessary for the state health division to establish and maintain a field office on site during the event. Heavy traffic on the two-lane road leading to the Black Rock Desert and the distance involved made commuting to the playa every day impractical. Each year, the health division rents a motor home so that staff have a home base from which to operate as well as much-needed air conditioning and shelter from frequent whiteouts. In 2003, the state of Nevada adopted Temporary Mass Gathering Regulations (Nevada Administrative Code 446.548), requiring the operator of a mass gathering to obtain a permit prior to the event. A mass gathering is described as "an outdoor assembly of not fewer than 500 persons that operates or may reasonably be expected to operate not less than 20 hours a day for more than 3 days and takes place at a location that lacks permanent facilities specifically intended for the type of assembly involved." Permit fees are calculated on the daily attendance numbers and range from $500 per day for 500 to 1,000 persons all the way up to $1,500 per day for more than 10,000 persons. The event currently averages more than 10,000 persons per day for the entire length of the festival. The fees collected from the mass gathering permit as well as the temporary food permit fees help to defray the cost of over 300 man hours conducting inspections on site.
From an environmentalist's perspective, the event presents a host of challenges that require an entirely different approach. The goal remains the same--protecting the public health--but if you can imagine arguing with a naked man about the necessity of wearing food service gloves while he scoops ice for snow cones, you begin to see what we are up against.
In 2011, the Nevada State Health Division issued over 100 temporary food permits for vendors at Burning Man. That is significant when you keep in mind that nothing can be sold at the event. It must be given away. It also must be prepared on site in whatever facility, primitive or extensive, you can cart onto the playa and construct. The menu items for these temporary foods can range from solar popcorn to alligator kabobs. Black Rock City, the event site's temporary name, is a semicircle of concentric streets lined with endless tents, thousands of motor homes, and very few landmarks with which to keep your bearings. Even seasoned "burners" will admit to having been lost a time or two. Not only do we have to inspect each temporary food vendor that we permit, we also have to find them!
Besides enforcing our food code regulations, inspecting porta potties, and tracking down unpermitted food vendors, the state health division cooperates extensively with emergency medical services at the event to remain aware of any trends that might indicate a foodborne illness or norovirus outbreak. It is not difficult to imagine how swiftly an outbreak of this type could spread through a crowded tent city with no sanitation infrastructure. The effects would be crippling and could quickly overwhelm the available medical personnel. Health statistics are reported at daily meetings, any trends are noted, and follow-ups are conducted.
As you can imagine, a city of 50,000 people operating on a 24-hours-a-day schedule can generate a significant amount of sewage and solid waste in eight days. Over 500 porta potties are on the playa, each requiring pumping several times a day. The state health division inspects and permits all septic pumpers operating at the event and as many as 25 trucks may be operating at any time. These range in size from 250-gallon trucks to 5,000-gallon tankers. All sewage is hauled to a waste treatment facility in Reno and trucks are constantly making the 200-mile round trip. Staff at the event may investigate sewage spills on the lake bed as well.
Interestingly enough, the success of Burning Man has forced the organizers of the event, Burning Man LLC, to create some of the very infrastructure that they were trying to get away from. Aside from the necessity of having environmental health staff at the event, they must also have Bureau of Land Management law enforcement as well as representatives from state department of transportation, local Native American tribes, state highway patrol, the Federal Aviation Administration (which maintains flight regulations for the temporary airport), Sierra Pacific Railway, and the county sheriff's department. Burning Man has also created a department of mutant vehicles to inspect the safety of art cars; a pyrotechnics group to maintain the safety of fires and explosive-themed events; the Black Rock Rangers to assist law enforcement; a department of public works that builds, maintains, and takes down the city; and a fire department.
Coordination and communication among all the regulators are handled by a special liaison team and daily briefings with all cooperating agencies are held. Emergency management plans are extensive and refined each year at pre- and post-cooperator meetings to determine what went right and what did not.
Discussions include getting thousands of attendees off the playa at the end of the event (known as exodus) and preparing and transporting large numbers of individuals long distances in the event of mass casualties due to disease, fire, or natural disaster. Surprisingly, one of the most feared events is rain. A rainfall event of any length brings all activity on the dry lake bed to a complete standstill. When the surface of the playa gets wet, it instantly turns into a material with the consistency of peanut butter, and you cannot walk on it, drive on it, and you certainly cannot ride a bicycle on it. The only option is to stay put and wait for it to dry out. Fortunately the only time this has happened was immediately after the event, stranding cleanup crews for several weeks.
The Nevada State Health Division staff remains on site of the Burning Man event for its entirety and rotates personnel throughout the event based on the number of volunteers available. It is a physically demanding job requiring meticulous planning, great communication skills, and an open mind. The best description I can think of is "extreme environmental health."
Roswell, New Mexico, may have the UFO Festival, but if any actual aliens are living on this planet they will most likely be found at Burning Man . . . where they can blend in.
For a better understanding of the event please go to burningman.com or contact us here at the Nevada State Health Division (Health.nv.gov). Aft
Corresponding Author: Richard Elloyan, Public Health Rating and Survey Officer, Public Health and Clinical Services, Nevada State Health Division, 4150 Technology Way #101, Carson City, NV 89706. E-mail: Relloyan@health.nv.gov.
Richard Elloyan, REHS
Nevada State Health Division