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Sold-out Burning Man festival spawns spinoffs

For years, the organization behind the counterculture festival Burning Man has been urging participants to live year-round by the ideals espoused during its week-long occupation of the Nevada Black Rock Desert.

A sudden ticket shortage just might be kicking that effort into high gear.

Last weekend, as many as 800 people descended on a private makeshift campground in this Modoc County town for Lunar Burn – a first-year event loosely patterned after Burning Man.

"This event wasn't about re-creating Burning Man. It's about showing it to new people," said Tom Michael, one of the principal organizers.

After years of steady, unrestrained growth, Burning Man sold out for the first time in 2011. The population of festival-goers is capped by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the dry lake bed that is turned into a temporary solar- and gas-powered city around Labor Day.

This year, using a new lottery program for ticket sales, the event was besieged with interest. The lottery concluded with less than a quarter of regular attendees scoring one of the 58,000 tickets available and many questioning whether the influx of new people would lead to the event's demise.

Colfax artist Jim Bowers was one of the lucky ones who got a ticket. But with the vast majority of his "tribe" ticketless, he's decided to raffle it off.

But he won't be going cold turkey on the Burning Man experience. He's already attended Lunar Burn and another local one-day event and this coming weekend he will host his own Fire & Steel Festival in Colfax.

"I'm getting my Burning Man fix," said Bowers, who has brought numerous memorable art projects to the playa northeast of Reno over his 16 years of attendance.

"Burning Man has started a movement," Bowers said. "All these regional events are starting to pop up."

Someone who saw only a few snapshots might assume Burning Man is about getting wild in the desert while wearing funky clothes, or no clothes at all.

But behind the frivolity and excess, Burning Man encourages people to live by its "10 principles," which include asking attendees to break down the wall between spectator and performer in an effort to reach their creative potential.

Attendees also are encouraged to spread the word.

To that end, the organization has 175 volunteer regional contacts in 19 countries across five continents. With the help of the regional contacts, 35 events have been authorized to call themselves official "regional burns," said Andie Grace, a spokeswoman for Black Rock City LLC.

"They are a way for more people to experience Burning Man. The desert is not for everyone," Grace said.

She said the organization has high standards for officially linked events. They must adhere to the 10 principles – among them is "decommodification," which means everything is free once on site. Linked events must also have sufficient insurance.

The largest regional burn is called Flipside near Austin, Texas, which sold out at 2,483 tickets.

Beyond the official events, there are scores of quasi-Burning Man events – like Lunar Burn and the Fire & Steel Festival – that attempt to adhere to some of the Burning Man ideals, but make compromises.

While Lunar Burn had some vendors and lacked some of the playful recreation and exploration offered by Burning Man, it possessed a similar spirit. During the crisp evenings, guests walked from one welcoming campfire to the next. Several disc jockeys blasted dubstep and other forms of electronic music into the night, and a laser light show played on the sagebrush-covered hillsides.

"I haven't figured out how to get a ticket to Burning Man," said Lika Chen of Camino. "If I don't (get one), at least I have this."

Todd Shimkus of the Lake Tahoe area said the event offered a taste of the big event. "It's bittersweet that more people want to go to Burning Man than is logistically possible," he said.

Lunar Burn property owner Greg Glover wants to turn much of the square-mile he owns into an events and concert center with a slice dedicated as a permanent Burning Man camp.

Bowers' Fire & Steel Festival on Saturday promises a glimpse of the real thing with live and recorded music, fire spinners, art cars, a bike parade and lots of free-standing art. He's expecting as many as 1,000 people – burners and non-burners alike – to descend on Historic Colfax.

Bowers said that while his event makes some compromises on the Burning Man philosophy – such as the presence of food and alcohol venders – it offers people a chance to have the Burning Man experience without going to the main event.

"They always tell you to take back to your community what you have learned," Bowers said. "You can try to explain Burning Man, but unless they go they will never get it."