Burning Man medics feel the heat
By Justin Berton
The San Francisco Chronicle
Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle
All Rights Reserved
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Before 10 a.m. Wednesday, medical supervisor Jonathan Washko already had seen one Burning Man participant whisked away by helicopter in critical condition, another with a broken left arm, another with a face burn from a fire accident, half a dozen people overcome by dehydration, and a stream of Burners with bloodied knees, stubbed toes and sunburned noses.
Washko, who is a director of the Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority, the Reno-based medical agency that serves the festival, expects the infirmary to get more crowded as the weekend progresses and record numbers of attendees descend on the desert festival.
"Some people just get a little too relaxed and crazy out here and take more risks," he said Wednesday. "It'll reach a crescendo by Saturday."
As the festival's awe-inspiring art installations and free-spirited tone have attracted more participants to Nevada's Black Rock Desert since 1990 - the number of attendees is expected to top 45,000 this year - the crowds also have increased the workload for medical and law enforcement personnel who oversee the event.
If this year's medical tent is as busy as last year's, workers can expect to treat about 1,800 patients, according to the medical agency.
In 2006, medics transported 20 people with severe and possibly life-threatening injuries by helicopter to Reno, and 32 people left Black Rock City by ambulance.
The majority of last year's patients incurred soft-tissue injuries, such as knee scrapes from tripping over generators at night and falling down on the salty desert floor. Burning Man staff also treated 262 festivalgoers with dehydration, 167 with open wounds, broken bones or dislocated limbs, 20 with a variety of burns, 19 for drug overdoses, five for seizures, eight for vehicle accidents, 71 with urinary tract infections and 12 debilitated by extreme heat or sunburn.
As Washko, a self-described "Republican guy who loves it out here," worked the tent Wednesday morning, one man in his 20s arrived semiconscious from alcohol intake and another woman in her 40s arrived delirious. When a physician asked her name, she replied, "I don't know who I am, where I am or what's going on."
On Thursday morning, a male festival participant was found dead, hanging from the inside of a two-story tent, according to Mark Pirtle, special agent in charge for the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that awards the use permit to Burning Man and oversees law enforcement duties. The apparent suicide would be the festival's first in its 21-year history, Pirtle said. He added that the man had been hanging for two hours before anyone in the large tent thought to bring him down.
"His friends thought he was doing an art piece," Pirtle said.
Last year, one man died at the festival from natural causes, according to Pershing County Sheriff Ron Skinner; in 2005, two men died from cardiac arrest; in 2003, a 21-year-old Belmont woman was killed while dismounting from an art car. That same year, four people suffered critical injuries when their plane crashed into the desert floor.
Burning Man organizers say such numbers are in line with any city of 45,000 people, and they view their mantra of "radical self-reliance" as a point of festival pride - participants are expected to prepare for, and overcome, the extreme high desert heat as part of their Burning Man experience.
To underscore self-responsibility (and to avoid any legal liability by the festival organizers), each ticket purchaser agrees to a contract that states, "You voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death by attending and release Burning Man from any claim arising from this risk."
To date, only one person has sued co-founder Larry Harvey and his business partners in a personal-injury claim. In 1996, a camper named Daniel Reed and two friends were run over by a drunken driver while sleeping in their tent. Harvey's insurance company settled with Reed, a Bay Area resident who's now 28 and still has brain damage.
"People who come to the desert know what they're up against," Harvey said. "They have an intense emotional bond with the event as if it's their own, and it doesn't cross their mind to sue us for what happens to them while they're here. It'd be like suing themselves."
Since the tent accident in 1996 - the same year a motorcyclist was killed while playing chicken with a van - campers have been separated from the roaming art cars to avoid accidents. That year is widely considered a turning point in Burning Man lore, when the festival lost its small, anarchistic, anything-goes roots and turned into a rules-laden society that works with local medical and law enforcement agencies.
Rex Scates, a former Burning Man participant from Boulder Creek, quit attending the event in the late '90s because of what he considered a rapid population growth that was overwhelming to the ecology of the desert and because controlling the crowd became more difficult. Fewer attendees showed up prepared to confront the 100-degree days and merciless dust storms.
"Once the event reached a certain size, you saw it shift from a group of people who were self-responsible to people showing up underprepared," Scates said. "Or, they showed up ultra-prepared - bringing in their RVs, cranking up their generators and getting ready to spectate instead of participate."
This year's event already has witnessed a new type of lawlessness. Paul David Addis, a 35-year-old San Francisco resident, was arrested by the Pershing County sheriff's department on suspicion of setting fire to the iconic Burning Man structure early Tuesday morning. Addis was released on bail.
Pirtle, the special agent from the Bureau of Land Management, said that as the crowds have grown, so has the number of drug citations issued by the 45 law officers who work the event. The number of citations peaked at 229 in 2005. In 2006, the number dropped to 156, but Pirtle said the workload for officers - one drug arrest takes two agents off the ground and requires 10 hours of paperwork - was a reason for the decline.
"It's my opinion we could use a lot more county sheriffs with all the cases," said Pirtle, who would like to see the ratio of 1.5 officers to 1,000 people grow to 2 per 1,000 next year. "It didn't happen this year, but we may need it in the future."
In 2005, deputies from the Pershing and Washoe county sheriff's departments, the local agencies that help with the event, reported seven sexual assaults, five cases of domestic abuse and 12 individuals diagnosed as "psychiatric cases."
The Bureau of Land Management charged Burning Man organizers about $750,000 for staffing costs in 2006, according to Pirtle. According to Burning Man reports, the corporation also paid county sheriff's deputies, including the local Indian tribe, $171,000 for law enforcement, and the medical bill came to $225,000.
Pirtle said he's thankful for the assistance of the Black Rock Rangers, the pseudo-police force manned by Burning Man volunteers from all over the country who assist with minor disputes ranging from noisy neighbors to stolen bicycles. In 2003, a Black Rock Ranger tipped the federal agent to an RV in which a resident was caught with a pound of ecstasy. The bust, Pirtle said, turned out to be the biggest drug cause in the area that year, resulting in a five-year prison sentence.
Still, Pirtle doesn't rely on the Black Rock Rangers to help with real-world police efforts.
"If the crowd got excited and turned on us one of these years," Pirtle said, "we couldn't trust them to help us. They're not deputized."
Back in the medical tent Wednesday, with the repetitious drone of techno music in the distance, director Washko said he'd heard that Tuesday afternoon was the busiest Tuesday in Burning Man's history.