Once the last of the wooden ship sculptures have been wheeled away and the Orgy Dome has been disassembled, once the dusty influencers in rave goggles have driven off and Diplo has returned to his native habitat, it’s time to clean up Burning Man.
This year, the infamous weeklong festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada was further complicated by torrential rainstorms. The downpour turned the playa soil into impenetrable mud, stranding 74,000 attendees with dwindling supplies and resulting in one death. By last week, the final attendees had been cleared out and the work of restoration had begun.
The festival operates with a “leave no trace” philosophy, meaning that all garbage must be carried out by attendees. In a normal year, there are still remnants of trash—in Burning Man parlance, this is called “matter out of place” or “moop.” What does that look like when even more has been left behind in the midst of an environmental disaster? And who’s responsible for clearing that out?
That would be Dominic Tinio, the environmental restoration manager of Burning Man. Tinio, who goes by DA (that stands for “Dark Angel”) first started attending Burning Man in 1997. In 2000, he first got tapped to join the cleanup crew. At the time, the festival only had 25,000 attendees.
Tinio spoke to GQ from his trailer in the desert, in the midst of returning the Black Rock Desert to a pristine state. He has a month from when the festival officially ended before the Bureau of Land Management comes to inspect the 157 million square foot territory.
Despite the monumental task before him, and the disastrous days behind him, Tinio remained calm and upbeat. “We started with nothing here,” he said. “And now we’re bringing it back to nothing.”
GQ: Burning Man was obviously very different this year. You have heavy storms, people stuck in the mud. At what point did you realize that your restoration work would have to be altered?
DA: This has been a possibility that I’ve been looking at for a long, long time.
I’ve been out here when there’s been a lake. It’s always crossed my mind that it potentially could happen one year where we just get a lot of rain. I’ve been in it in so many conditions that a lot of stuff doesn’t actually phase me. This is the Black Rock Desert. It’s the Black Rock Desert’s rules. I think the community knows that the Black Rock Desert is about challenging conditions. It’s a test for the community.
But I think this community does a really good job of keeping it clean. Last year was super dusty, high wind dust storms. I think people really came into this event smarter, keeping their areas clean.
Well, I imagine as people start trying to rush out and escape by any means possible, you’re going to see campsites and vehicles left behind. What were your emotions as you looked around and saw that?
Me, I’m always calm. It was just happening. I was helping out wherever I could. I saw that there were people trying to get out, and they were getting stuck. But most people stayed in place and just sat it out. And then the playa dried, and we continued to have the burn. There was a slight rise in, “what if people couldn’t deal with their stuff?” You’re not seeing a big rise.
You weren’t seeing tons of abandoned cars and stuff like that?
They’re gone. It just took a couple of days to drive out. After a couple of days it’s no longer mud. It’s hard-packed. I’m looking at it right now. People just waited a couple of days and they just packed up as usual and drove themselves out.
There always is some [stuff left behind], and there might be a little bit of a rise. We could say there’s a slight rise, but not anything terrible, not anything out of the ordinary. We have this completely under control right now.
What was the strangest thing you had to get rid of yourself?
When the mud was happening, there was a lady who was carrying her kid out and they just needed to get out. The kid wasn’t feeling so well, and I was just like, “Hey, get in.” I had a UTV and I could help her get out.
Some people were trying to escape, some people had already left, and some people were just going to sit it out and then see what happens. When it was time to pick it up, it’s time to pick it up.
How long is restoration going to take, and how many people are on your team?
Black Rock City’s around 3,600 acres—3,600 football fields, we’ll say. 157 million square feet. So that’s a lot of territory to cover. But we cover it. I’m going to have somewhere between 175 and 200 people out here doing a line sweep. Everybody lines up and we, block for block, walk the desert.
In terms of just the actual soil composition and what happened after the rain were you seeing, say, glitter lodged in the soil?
It’s funny, everybody talks about glitter, but it’s never really glitter. It’s the moop that we watch out for. It’s made out of wood and plastics and metals. The playa is now a hard surface. So if there’s any moop, it’s right there and we can see it and we’re able to pick it up.
Were there full cars, tents, anything like that that you had to get rid of as well?
If there were any cars, we’ve gotten them back to their owners or we’ve got them out of here. And yes, there’s some abandoned tents and that is normal but, comparatively, it’s not a lot. There’s a slight uptick, but not anything fairly out of our norm.
In all the years of doing this, what is the wildest thing you have ever seen left behind there?
It actually happened a little bit more off season. During restoration, there was a rocket team that was trying to break a world record during our cleanup operation. And their permits said that they needed to clear the entire playa, but we were on the playa at the same time as we had a complete permit. So they asked us, they said, “Hey, why don’t you come and watch us break this world record with this rocket.” It was kind of big. It was a 30-foot rocket.
Something malfunctioned and the rocket went off early. I watched it go straight down. It landed right in Black Rock City.
We just slowly rolled up to this rocket that was perfectly in the ground. It’s almost like a needle. And all of these rocket scientists are looking at us, and they’re like, “Any y’all have a shovel?” And we were just giggling, because we’re just made for this. Our truck is loaded with brooms, rakes, shovels, magnets. We dug it out, and then we strapped the rocket to my truck, and then I pulled the 30-foot rocket out of the playa.
Was it a SpaceX rocket?
No, this was before all of that stuff. I want to say this happened in the mid early 2000’s. I don’t even know what happened to those people. I know they didn’t break the record.
You said that when you started doing restoration work you realized you have an innate talent for it. What does it take to be good at it?
There was a curiosity. Just being able to look at the playa and tell the story. It was almost like profiling—like CSI and archeology at the same time. Walking across the desert and being able to look at where Black Rock City once was and being able to, if you just squint just right, tell exactly what happened there, even just by the shape of the dust.
There’s a real pride that happens here. There’s something so satisfying about leaving no trace. It’s a really beautiful time when restoration happens. It’s where there’s one single goal left. It gets quieter and quieter and quieter and then you just hear the wind. And then it’s time for us to leave and let the desert do its thing.
When do you get to take off?
We have our Bureau of Land Management inspection about a month after the event ends. We’re tested at 120 random generated waypoints in Black Rock City. The inspection standard is that we are not to exceed one square foot of debris per every acre. It’s actually 0.002%. In order for us to pass this test, we are between zero and 0.002%, which is staggering, right?
So you’re telling me it’s flooding, everything’s covered in mud, and you’re keeping calm about that 0.002% number?
Oh, totally. My confidence in this community made me believe it. The Burning Man community does this amazing job. And my crew, playa restoration, the 200-plus people that stayed behind, we make sure it looks like it never happened.
These rainstorms came at a time when climate change is intensifying extreme weather all over the world. Chances are, this is going to be more of a reality. What kind of contingency plans do you have for cleanup going forward?
I’ve been looking at the weather here for a long time. The fact that this is the first time it’s rained twice. It rained twice in a couple of weeks. It rained hard for a couple of weeks. That’s new. Is it an anomaly? I don’t know yet. We don’t know. What we’re used to is hot and dusty and windy, and so we’ll pay attention. But currently it’s still the playa. It can still be predictably unpredictable.
The festival has become much more popular in the last 20 years. Part of that includes seeing more celebrities and CEOs attending. Is it more difficult to get people to respect the leave no trace ethos when the festival has expanded to the level that it has?
That’s been the question since day one. The fact that we keep growing answers that question. We are still able to meet this 0.002% standard. We build this city and light it on fire, and then we make it look like it never happened.
This interview has been edited and condensed.