Alpha and You
Condition Alpha Survival Guide
... lived through the cataclysm; I was one of those who didn't
get out in time. I sat through the dust on Tuesday and Wednesday,
watching firsthand from the cab of the crane truck. I watched
as everything got buried and generally destroyed. Waves of blinding
white alkali scratched over the cab as my truck reeled with each
blinding gust. Loading anything was out of the question. Trying
to sleep in any vehicle was like trying to nap in a Shop Vac --
running. No one could leave. You couldn't see for more than a
couple of feet. It was like being incarcerated, against your will
and better judgment, in one of the largest expanses of open horizon
in North America... I get in my vehicle (if it still runs) and
start the camp tour to enjoy the now-real scenes of the apocalypse
and the generally accelerating disassembly of humanity.
Jim Mason writing on the big storm after
Burning Man 2002
is Condition Alpha?
goes? It is a nice day on the Playa and then without warning a
total blowing whiteout arrives and doesn't ever seem to want to
leave. Your motorhome is rocking back and forth like a sailboat
in the roaring forties. Your tent is plastered around your body,
poles a-bending. Your bike is being moving along the playa, without
you on it. Burn barrels and other heavy stuff are cartwheeling
through camp. This may be what the Burning Man Rangers call "Condition
Alpha" and it is very dangerous.
Condition Alpha (just after) Burning Man 2002
Tuesday following Burning Man 2002, a thousand or so poor souls
experienced "Alpha", which started with no warning at
midday and lasted for almost three days, with sustained winds
at 70mph gusting to over 100mph. DPW did their best, they locked
down Burning Man (you couldn't see to find your way out anyway).
People were injured (although none seriously) and everyone was
left shaken and reminded why it says on the ticket "By Attending
This Event You risk Serious Injury or Death". Greeters told
us "we dodged a bullet, this could have caused great injury
and even fatalities". We helped our friends (11 year veterans)
in desperate need and I left with a determination to tell the
story of Alpha/2002. You can see our Alpha/2002
page with photos here.
Alpha, a Survival Guide
Protect your Body: Don't become a casualty
is an emergency situation where if unprotected your eyes and skin
will be violently pelted with playa material and worse. If exposed,
your eyes will be way beyond irritation and you may have trouble
seeing, you may bleed through the skin, and you will dehydrate
much faster. Conditions in an Alpha blow make it difficult to
stay erect, to speak, to hear or to be seen by anyone. Dunes cover
everything that presents a profile, covering hazards like rebar
which you may be injured by. After you get yourself into a safe
state, then seek to keep everyone around you safe. If someone
is trying to work outside encourage them to stop and wait for
a lull in the wind. Lifting up any object or tarp to Alpha wind
could cause injury. In Alpha, wear a dust mask, or better still,
break out a full industrial grade two filter breathing apparatus.
Dust will jet into a closed vehicle through the smallest cracks.
There is no way to keep dust out of your immediate environment.
Use ski googles or other sealed eye protection at all times when
outside. This quantity of dust can affect your health and ability
to weather the storm so try to minimize your dust intake. Hydrate
yourself and those around more often especially if you are exposed
to the wind. Eat if you are hungry, rest if you are getting exhausted.
Effect Rescue, Shelter and Sustenance for those in need in your
Alpha, there may be no way that Burning Man staff can meet even
a small fraction of health and safety needs. They will be only
slightly less immobilized than you. You will be the first line
of support. Your first step is to determine that Alpha condition
has arrived. You may hear this on Burning Man radio broadcasts,
if they are operating. If people are asking you for shelter, give
it to them, it is Alpha. Motorhomes are the most effective safe
havens, so openly offer people to come in to yours. At Alpha/2002
people sought shelter in the porta-potties for hours, don't leave
them to that fate. Look for people who are lying down prone on
the playa. That person-shaped dune might be a person in crisis.
Alpha means low visibility. If it is safe and you are cogent,
carefully scout your own area but don't get lost, at Alpha/2002
people took 30 minutes to find a spot 200 feet away.
Minimize your movement, and watch for things that are moving (UFOs)
drive you may hurt someone badly, so try not to do it. Do not
try to leave the Playa, Burning Man staff will lock down the playa
in condition Alpha. Don't ride your bike. If you can do it safely,
scout your area on foot for rescue (#2). In Alpha sand dunes cover
everything that presents a profile. Alpha blows will pockmark
windshields and strip off paint. You may want to reorient your
vehicle or motorhome to present less of a profile to the wind
or to make a wind break for a camp, but do this very carefully
and after checking the area where you will be driving. Alpha means
many unidentified flying objects (UFOs). If material larger than
paper cups is flowing horizontally in the blow, do not expose
yourself to the wind. If you try to dodge a flying burn barrel,
you will lose. Stay away from structures or art installations
that present a profile to the wind, they may blow apart without
You are not on your own
Playans are there to help, do not be too proud to ask for help.
If Burning Man Staff approach you should ask for or offer information
or help and do what they say.
When is Alpha over and what to do?
this kind of weather there is often a lessening of winds near
to dusk or in the early morning allowing outside activity such
as packing up to leave. When it is dark, however, there is the
added danger of loss of visibility. If you want to take advantage
of a lull in Alpha winds to work outside on your camp, take the
time to plan your tasks for every minute will count. Fortify your
team with food, water, and body protection and execute your outside
tasks quickly but safely. If you want to leave and there is no
visibility do not drive. Alpha erases most markers and signs of
roads so it can be hard to drive where vehicles were meant to
go. Material will be all over the roads that are left so drive
very slowly. If Burning Man staff tell you to stop, then stop,
they probably know something you don't. When you get to the highway
drive especially carefully and stop for rest if you are exhausted.
The highway may be obscured by dust as well as driven by other
exhausted Alpha survivors. It would be a shame to survive Alpha
and not make it past Gerlach.
How to prepare for Alpha on the Playa
"Playa Extreme" survival kit is one step above your
regular burning man survival guide supplies. Perhaps one person
in your camp should always pack the Playa Extreme kit:
Hardening" your Camp and your fellow Playans
your camp to withstand Alpha conditions. If you present a rigid
or fabric structure with a profile to the wind, it will not survive
Alpha and will present a hazard when it comes apart into UFOs.
Design all hard profile elements to swivel and allow the wind
to pass through. Fabrics should be attached with fasteners that
can be taken apart quickly by hand or come apart under pressure.
Remember that attached flapping rope or fabric presents a hazard
and these should be wrapped up in a safe manner.
that could turn into UFO projectiles should be stowed in a container
or in a secure wind-shielded area. Anything lighter than a bicycle
can become a projectile. Burn barrels become missiles in Alpha
blows. Put small hard items like tins or bottles in garbage bags,
which are less likely to be dragged along the playa, do not leave
them on tables.
know that if Alpha conditions occur, that they should not necessarily
attempt to return to your home camp, especially if they are far
away. It is much better to seek shelter where they are than attempting
a risky trek across the Playa. Everyone in your camp should be
familiar with Burning Man facilities including the distributed
clinics. Pick a radio/walkie talkie frequency for your camp and
use it to locate your members should Alpha occur.
all, don't lose the faith, keep a positive, constructive and alert
demeanor, there is nobody to blame for it, treat it as a test,
as an adventure. Alpha may last a few hours, a day, two days or
even longer, but it will eventually end, and peace will return
to the Playa.
and the Future of Burning Man
if you care about Burning Man, you should care about condition
Alpha. As one seasoned greeter said, one of these years we will
experience Alpha during the highly populated period of the festival.
If we have serious injuries or deaths, this could mean the end
of Burning Man. If you and many others like you are prepared,
we will dodge that bullet and Burning Man will pass this ultimate
test of the Playa.
Thank you for your consideration,
was contributed by Bruce Damer and Galen Brandt
Burning Man Pages are at:
Their page with their own Condition Alpha story and photographs
is at: http://www.damer.com/pictures/events/burningman2002/blowout/index.html
another account of this see Jim Mason's
Letter From Burning Man: Dust Up.
and Kitty Wells, our companions and survivors of Alpha/2002