Bruce Damer's BurningMan 2002 Albums

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After Burning Man 2002
Bruce and Galen's Account of Surviving a Condition Alpha Blow

We survived what was described as the worst blow in the history of Burning Man which began in the late morning of September 3rd, 2002. The following is a recounting of this experience by four members of WOW Camp, Frank Schwartz, Kitty Wells, Galen Brandt and your photographer, Bruce Damer.

See our recommended Condition Alpha Survival Guide here.

The following are scenes from WOW and one if its members, Kush Camp, during the Sept 3rd 100 MPH continuous blow which destroyed much of Burning Man.

Before: Kush Camp approximately one hour before the blow commenced at 11:30am

A different kind of blow

When the blow hit at 11:30am we were in our tiny Provan Tiger motor home. I felt this was something different as the wind was so violent that it rocked the motor home back and forth, even though we faced the vehicle directly into the wind. We had sealed up all the windows and hatches and yet fine gypsum dust squirted in through every crack it could find, even through the undercarriage and engine. We lost sight of Kitty and Frank's camp only 200 feet away and assumed they had packed up and left. We were wrong.

Kitty and Frank's not so excellent adventure

Our dear friends Kitty and Frank were in terribly trouble. The blow had caught them in the most vulnerable position, with their camp half taken down. We could not see them at all but they set out to seek help from us but instead got lost, finding another friend hunkered down about 300 feet from us. He pointed them in the direction of our RV and they managed to find us. We heard a knock on the door and were very happy to see them and invited them in to our lifeboat. This was the worst Kitty and Frank had ever seen and they have been coming to the Playa since 1991.

Frank said that DPW/Rangers had come by told them that this was an emergency Condition Alpha and to help rescue anyone in need and under no circumstances attempt to drive on or off of the Playa as the road was closed in any case.

After: Kush Camp!
During and momentary clearing, driving to the wreckage of Kush Camp with streaks of dust on the windshield

To the rescue of Kush

After giving Kitty and Frank water I decided to drive our vehicle carefully forward during a momentary clearing to scout Kush Camp. As it appeared through the whiteout I wondered how anyone could have survived working outside in this for hours. I parked the motorhome in the windward side of Kush providing a sort of windbreak and allowing us to get in and out and work as a team.

View of Kitty and Frank trying to take down Kush Camp in the storm, we gave up on this up until hours later.

We donned our dust masks and goggles and worked for another hour trying to pack up Kush. It was pretty fruitless work and I realized there was no way we could safely pack the trailer during this kind of wind. One gust of wind catching a tarp and our work would be undone. One misstep into a hunk of sharp rebar invisible under a sand dune and we would have a serious injury. I encouraged the team to repair to the RV and attack this again when I assumed the winds would die down, as they often can at dusk. We made ourselves a wonderful meal and Galen offered sponge baths for those with skin peppered by high speed dust grains.

I noticed that dusk was fast coming on and that if we did not move back outside and finish the job we would have to stay another night on the Playa, with the possibility of another serious storm. I encouraged everyone to cut the dinner short and we worked highly effectively as a team unloading hundreds of pounds of sand dunes from the remnants of Kitty and Frank's camp and packing an impossible amount of stuff on their trailer. We finished with just enough light left and jointly pulled out, making it to Fernley where Frank and Kitty really needed to crash (in the last hotel room in town). Galen and I went on to Reno to a much appreciated hotel room and bed.

How dangerous is Condition Alpha?

Remember that on our Burning Mand tickets it says "you risk bodily injury or death by attending this event". Well, Burning Man dodged a bullet this year. If this had happened two days earlier we would have had a real emergency on the playa. At one point Galen saw a huge meta framework traveling down the Playa at about 20 miles per hour. Someone told us that while seeking cover in their collapsed tent they heard the beat of a large metal drum, probably a burn barrel, pounding its way down the playa and lo and behold, it clobbered them where they lay. Greeters and other volunteers were urgently called back to the Playa to help and some drove a full 12 hours from Seattle. If you were exposed to 100 MPH flows of gypsum and other flying debris, you could be seriously injured. Skin would be punctured to bleeding. The only objects that stayed down were the banks of porta potties (sometimes it helps to be full of shit).

Center Camp's huge tent survived the blow but everything else was wrecked or covered with heavy dunes. Being next to center camp must have been a hazardous place as art pieces, bits of the cafe and other matter out of place was speeding through. The blow fence must be a single dune 4 miles long filled with MOOP and a real pain for the cleanup crews to deal with (would need heavy equipment).

We look relaxed in these pictures but this is an illusion, people were happy and relieved to be alive and together in the lifeboat of Bruce and Galen's Tiger RV.

See our recommended Condition Alpha Survival Guide here.

For great writing about this event see Jim Mason's Letter From Burning Man: Dust Up.

Frank and Kitty, truly brave playanauts




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