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Condition Alpha and You
A Condition Alpha Survival Guide

I ... 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

What is Condition Alpha?

Hey, what 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.

The Condition Alpha (just after) Burning Man 2002

On the 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.

Condition Alpha, a Survival Guide

#1 Protect your Body: Don't become a casualty

Alpha 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.

#2: Effect Rescue, Shelter and Sustenance for those in need in your immediate area

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In condition 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.

#3 Minimize your movement, and watch for things that are moving (UFOs)

If you 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 warning.

#4 You are not on your own

Other 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.

#5 When is Alpha over and what to do?

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During 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.

#6 How to prepare for Alpha on the Playa

The Alpha "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:

  • Several industrial grade breathing apparatuses, consisting of two-filter "gas mask" style air breathers
  • Multiple sets of real eye protection, such as ski goggles that seal around the eyes
  • Extra pairs of thick work gloves
  • Real boots that protect shins and soles
  • Real sets of clothing that protect the body, almost at the level of ski gear with a ski mask
  • One or more space blankets to both shelter and warm someone in need
  • A real first aid kit and the knowledge to use it
  • Extra water, extra cups and portable water bottles, extra energizing snack foods
  • A loudspeaker or air horn to get attention
  • Damp towellettes to wash faces and skin exposed to the blow
  • Damp cloths to hold over mouth while inside shelter (the dust will be pervasive enough inside tents or motorhomes to make you sick)
  • Heavy scissors to cut rope
  • Extra garbage bags, ties, and secure containers to prevent UFOs
  • External covers for windshields

"Alpha Hardening" your Camp and your fellow Playans

Build 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.

Any items 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.

Let everyone 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.

Above 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.

Alpha and the Future of Burning Man

Remember, 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,

The piece was contributed by Bruce Damer and Galen Brandt

Their Burning Man Pages are at:
http://www.damer.com/pictures/events/burningman.html
Their page with their own Condition Alpha story and photographs is at: http://www.damer.com/pictures/events/burningman2002/blowout/index.html

For another account of this see Jim Mason's Letter From Burning Man: Dust Up.

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Frank Schwartz and Kitty Wells, our companions and survivors of Alpha/2002

 

 


   
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