The Extraordinary History of Burning Man
Burning Man is so unique that it’s often difficult to find the right words to describe it. It’s not a festival, a word that conjures up visions of Coachella or Bonnaroo, and it’s more organized than a gathering. Because there are now more than 80 regional events around the world on six continents, it’s also grown beyond being just an annual event in the Nevada desert.
So, what is Burning Man exactly? Well, it’s a global culture. And a way of living. And a decommodified city that participants build from scratch every year, then carefully dismantle after a week so that there’s no trace they were ever there.
Everyone’s experience is completely different. “There aren’t five minutes at Burning Man that are ever the same,” Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley, a spokesman for Burning Man, told Far & Wide.
So, how did this wonderfully elusive, impossible-to-capture, once-in-a-lifetime event come about? This is the weird, wondrous and serendipitous history of Burning Man.
An Intense Gathering
In the simplest sense, Burning Man is a weeklong event that culminates with a giant human effigy burning to the ground. Participants set up a temporary city, complete with law enforcement, medical care, food, beverages and services (think woodworking lessons and bike repair). There’s music, hundreds of art installations, activities, performances and tons of other shared experiences. Participants often connect with one another on an intensely deep level, much like you used to do at summer camp as a kid, Debucquoy-Dodley says.
Burning Man promotes self-expression, creativity, community, sustainability, gift-giving (nearly everything at Burning Man is free) and many other values. According to Debucquoy-Dodley, though people live for just one week in Black Rock City, many participants spend the rest of the year embodying these principles in their home communities as well.
The First Burn — 1986
The origin story of Burning Man starts in 1986, when Larry Harvey and Jerry James decided, somewhat randomly, to build a larger-than-life man out of scrap wood and burn it on the beach near San Francisco. Harvey had been going through a midlife crisis after a bad breakup when he spontaneously called up his friend James and said: “Let’s … let’s burn a man, Jerry.”
The two men met through the “Latte Carpenters,” a group of friends who were intellectually curious and loved discourse. At the time, Harvey worked primarily as a carpenter and a landscaper. James was a carpenter, too.
Harvey and James created an 8-foot human effigy and dragged it down to Baker Beach with about 10 other friends on June 22, the summer solstice. They poured gasoline on the man and lit it on fire. “It was like a second sun brought down to this earth,” Harvey said in a 1997 speech.
As soon as the man began to burn, everyone on the beach came running toward it. The impromptu group started singing and as the wind blew all the flames to one side of the man, a woman ran over to hold its hand, an act Harvey described as the event's first “spontaneous performance."
And with that first burning of the man, something new and significant was born. “What we had instantly created was a community,” Harvey said.
Starting A Tradition — 1987
The first Burning Man had clearly resonated with the crowd on the beach, so much so that Harvey and James decided to burn another man in 1987. This time around, they started work on the man a few weeks in advance and made him nearly twice the size of the original effigy at 15 feet tall. For the second year in a row, the man had a triangular-shaped face, a tradition that would live on throughout the event’s history. Approximately 80 people attended the second burn.
Already, some of Burning Man’s core values were starting to take shape, namely its focus on communal effort. “We depended for our resources, not on grants, and not on sponsorship, and not on anybody's funding, but on our own communal efforts undertaken together,” Harvey said in a 2000 lecture.
Making Things Official — 1988
By 1988, the event had taken on a more official feeling, with the organizers creating posters, T-shirts and fliers to encourage even more people to attend. This was also the year that the human effigy officially became known as “Burning Man,” according to event archives.
Some 200 people attended the burn in 1988, including, for the first time, the police. After some discussion, the police allowed the organizers to let the man keep burning, though he had to be knocked down and thrown into a pile.
Moving Burning Man — 1990
After four years of burning the man on Baker Beach, the event was essentially forced to relocate by the authorities. The Golden Gate Park Police told Harvey that the group could erect the man, but they could not burn him, since it was wildfire season. And so, the group decided to move the burn to the Black Rock Desert northeast of Reno, Nevada, a few months later on Sept. 30, 1990.
The idea to move Burning Man to the desert is largely credited to a group called the San Francisco Cacophony Society, a local collective of artists and practical jokers who organized events. Members of the free-spirited group first discovered Burning Man in 1988 and quickly became involved in all aspects of the event.
Some 90 participants attended the first desert burn, a number that would later balloon to tens of thousands of people willing to brave the difficult conditions.
“It’s tough to be out there for a long time, but there’s something about your time there that transcends the heat and the dust,” says Debucquoy-Dodley.
Establishing Traditions — 1991
The desert burn grew to 250 participants the following year, when fire dancer Crimson Rose ignited the 40-foot-tall man. Another one of Burning Man’s core tenets began to crystallize in 1991 after the Bureau of Land Management got involved and reported that “no trace of the burning ceremony or the campsite can be found” after the event.
Participants and organizers have religiously carried forward that “leave no trace” mentality ever since. Since the Black Rock Desert is an unforgiving environment, participants also created the first desert survival guide in 1991.
Birth of Traditions — 1992
By the early 1990s, the event had begun to adopt more formal infrastructure in the desert. Participants drew up blueprints in 1992 showing a site plan for the “camp” near the man and created their own version of law enforcement/emergency personnel called the Rangers. These seasoned participants located lost campers and got them to camp safely.
Participants also created the Black Rock Gazette, a newsletter with important safety and logistical information about Burning Man. (Though the Gazette stopped publishing in 2006, there have been a handful of other Burning Man publications, including the Burning Man Journal, which is the community’s primary news source today.)
Also by the early 1990s, people had begun organizing “theme camps” in the desert, which remain a hallmark of Burning Man today. These interactive camps took on whatever theme their organizers desired, from Elvis to bread-baking — and everything in between. In the modern era of Burning Man, you’ll find camps with more abstract themes like “11:11 Make a Wish,” “404: Village Not Found” and “The Camp With No Name.”
Tremendous Growth And Growing Pains — 1995
By the mid-1990s, the space where participants gathered for Burning Man was officially called Black Rock City. Media attention had increased, too, with CNN starting annual coverage of Burning Man in 1995. Participants also beefed up internal communication by doing a 24-hour radio broadcast, creating multiple websites and uploading the Black Rock Gazette newspaper to the internet every day.
Challenging Times — 1997
The 1996 iteration of Burning Man was chaotic and hectic, with several people suffering injuries during a rave organized about a mile away from Black Rock City. When it became clear to organizers that the existing infrastructure was being strained by an influx of new participants, they decided to move Burning Man to a private plot of land called the Fly Ranch on the Hualapai Flat in the desert in 1997.
Officials with Washoe County, where the event was held, charged the event a $350,000 fee for fire and law enforcement protection and confiscated 100% of the proceeds from tickets sold at the gate to try to get their money. When all was said and done, Burning Man still owed the county $200,000.
Harvey asked participants to contribute whatever money they could to keep Burning Man alive — and many did so.
Time for Change — 1998
After the failed experiment at Fly Ranch, the organizers decided that Burning Man’s true home was back at the original location of Black Rock City. This was also the first year that participants organized a satellite Burning Man — 30 people participated in the first regional event, which was held in Texas. They burned a straw that who was built on site.
Burning Man also had its first art exhibit, titled “The Art of Burning Man: An Incendiary Exhibition,” in San Francisco. There were photos, videos, paintings, installations and even the Burning Man effigy himself. "This is art as myth, as ritual, as a kind of erotic property; a form of collective selfhood," Harvey said during his opening statement about the exhibit.
Saturday Burning — 1999
After years of burning the man on Sunday, the organizers tried something a little different in 1999: They burned the man on Saturday. The goal was to give participants more time to “leave no trace” and return Black Rock City to its natural state.
Burning Man also had its second art exhibit in 1999, this one at the Bruka Theater Gallery in Reno. Fun fact: This exhibit included the largest-ever interactive Etch-a-Sketch display.
Climbing the Man — 2001
The man had a unique design in 2001: He was constructed atop a 30-foot structure that people could climb for sweeping views of Black Rock City. It was also the first year that the man had to be hoisted up with a crane.
On the operational side of things, organizers dealt with a new problem in 2001: counterfeit tickets, though they were able to catch most of the perpetrators at the box office. Participants may also remember 2001 as the year of the “Jiffy Lube incident,” when one group of participants hung a massive sign in front of their Jiffy Lube theme camp that showed two men engaged in sex.
2001 was also the first year of the “AfterBurn report,” a year-end report describing what the Burning Man staff and volunteers had done that year, what changes were being made moving forward, and how the organization’s money was spent, among other things.
Taking to the Skies — 2002
By the early 2000s, Black Rock City had its own airport. In 2002, a reported 70 airplanes and helicopters landed at the temporary airport, which remains in use today. The airport continues to serve general aviation and charter flights, though organizers cheekily note that even though you can fly a private plane to Burning Man, you still need to make sure you have a ticket when you land.
As with the event itself, the airport requires participants to leave no trace and be totally self-reliant. The airport is run by burners — roughly two weeks before the event, they start setting up control towers, runways and checkpoints.
Ten Principles – 2004
In 2004, the man was 80 feet tall and stood atop a dome-shaped observatory. Despite intense heat, rain and dust storms, more than 35,000 people participated in Burning Man this year.
After nearly 20 years of Burning Man, its co-founder Harvey decided to capture the event’s core belief system in a cohesive document called the Ten Principles. They are: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.
“They were written by Larry Harvey to address questions from our growing regional network,” says Debucquoy-Dodley. “Who are we? How do we represent ourselves? What does it mean to be associated with Burning Man in an official capacity? How do we discuss who we are? He wrote these down and they’ve really become the language that we use when we describe our values.”
Giving Back – 2005
This year marked the formation of Burners Without Borders, a group that traveled south to Biloxi, Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to support relief efforts there, and has continued to mobilize after other disasters. Participants at Burning Man also raised more than $35,000 for Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. Other grassroots groups, such as Lawyers for Burners, have popped up over the years.
Black Rock City became even more high-tech with the installation of a public Wi-Fi network, and displayed more art installations than ever before. This was due to an increase in Burning Man art grants from $250,000 to $425,000, which helped bring 275 total installations to the desert.
Burning the Man Twice — 2007
This was the year the man burned twice, though that wasn’t part of the plan. During a lunar eclipse at the 2007 event, an arsonist took advantage of the darkness, climbed atop the pavilion and set the man on fire. A team quickly mobilized to rebuild the man in just 35 hours, using phoenix imagery to symbolize the man’s rebirth from the arson.
The arsonist, who had endangered the lives of several burners who were near the man at the time of his blaze, was later apprehended and turned over to the local authorities.
Recession Hits Burning Man — 2009
Burning Man was not immune to the Great Recession that unfolded in the late 2000s. For the first time ever, there was a decrease in participation at Burning Man in 2009. In addition, there was a decrease in art installations at Burning Man, with 215 pre-registered artworks and 24 honorarium projects.
Participation quickly rebounded though: In 2010, a record number of people participated in Burning Man and in 2011, so many people wanted to participate that tickets to Burning Man — a first in the history of the event.
Growing Demand — 2013
By 2013, word had clearly spread about Burning Man, as tickets sold out for the third year in a row and approximately 40% of participants attended the event for the first time. To minimize the number of cars traveling to Burning Man, organizers created the Burner Express shuttle system to transport participants from Reno and San Francisco to Black Rock City, a popular new service that 2,000 people took advantage of in its first year. Even so, travel in and out of Black Rock City was difficult, with some participants spending up to eight hours en route.
Technology at Burning Man — 2015
Technological progress often creates new challenges, and this has certainly been the case at Burning Man. With the rise in popularity of drones and lasers, Burning Man created new rules around the use of these devices. After hearing that several participants had been blinded or hit by lasers, event organizers instituted an all-out ban on lasers at Burning Man starting in 2015.
Organizers also strengthened Burning Man’s drone policy so that participants could only apply to fly them for media coverage, event operations, art documentation and art performance.
A Diverse Crowd
As attendance at Burning Man has grown over the years, the event has attracted people from all walks of life. In the modern era, you’re just as likely to mingle with artists as you are with a group of tech execs — and everyone in between.
“Burning Man’s demographics are so diverse,” Debucquoy-Dodley says. “I don’t really like the phrase counterculture, but it’s less of a secretive thing now — it’s much more mainstream. Burning Man has gotten more popular, it is in the media in a different way than it was before. Because of that, people who traditionally maybe would not have even heard about it are now thinking of it as a place they have to see at least once.”
Larger Than Life — 2017
The 2017 iteration of Burning Man was massive — in more ways than one. The man stood 105 feet tall, a height reached only once before in 2014, and nearly 70,000 people participated. Unfortunately, the event was also marked with tragedy, as participant Aaron Joel Mitchell ran into the fire while the man burned and later died from his injuries.
“The incident shook our community, but the outpouring of sympathy for Joel and his friends and family, and gratitude for the (emergency services) workers who tried to save him, immediately initiated a process of healing,” stated the Burning Man website.
Confronting Tragedy and Moving Forward – 2018
The event marked another milestone in April 2018 with the death of co-founder Larry Harvey, who died at the age of 70 from a stroke. Harvey remained involved with Burning Man until the very end, serving as board president and chief philosophic officer of Burning Man Project, the nonprofit that helps organize the event and related initiatives.
“He didn’t fit a mold; he broke it with the way he lived his life. He was 100% authentic to his core,” wrote Marian Goodell, CEO and board member of the Burning Man Project, in a tribute to “the man in the hat.”
Burning Man Vs. the Pandemic — 2020 and 2021
Like many events around the world, Burning Man was canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic in both 2020 and 2021.
However, a few rogue groups still held events, which caused great controversy. In 2020, a group of about 1,000 went back to the roots of the festival and celebrated in Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Another group of over a thousand also had an informal gathering at Black Rock City. Both were heavily criticized for endangering public health.
A similar event occurred in 2021, except about 20,000 people showed up. Since authorities prohibited fires, the man was made with a collection of drones.
Burning Man Returns — 2022 and Onward
As the world opened back up, so did Burning Man. The event had an extremely successful 2022, with over 80,000 people coming to celebrate a new life and process two difficult years.
The festival will continue to live on as long as there are people who want to celebrate its principles and dare to live life differently, if only for nine days in the heat of the desert.