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A Burner Lexicon: Department of Public Works

Posted in A Burner Lexicon, and Burning Man

Grizzled Department of Public Works volunteers during the annual DPW Parade. Black Rock City, 2009. Image by John Curley.

Department of Public Works, –noun, While a Burn thrives on the efforts of all its volunteers who put together theme camps, events, and the other offerings that make up the gift economy, someone has to build the infrastructure that holds it all together. Likewise, everyone is expected to leave no trace when the event is over, yet someone has to pick up the MOOP that is still left behind.

At That Thing In The Desert, volunteers in the DPW or Department of Public Works will arrive weeks in advance. They drive in the first stake that marks the future home of the effigy and the center of Black Rock City, then build up the framework of the temporary metropolis before opening day. Then they remain after the event to return the desert to pristine condition; some stay into October, or even year round at the DPW’s permanent encampment in Gerlach. The contributions of similar volunteers at smaller regional burns are no less vital.

During exodus, remember to gift the DPW with your unopened food products and unused drugs (especially any Pabst Blue Ribbon). They need them more than you will in the default world. While you’re headed for a hot shower and a casino buffet, they’re counting the minutes till the desert is theirs again.

See also: Earth Guardians

It’s amazing to watch the transformation that DPW veterans undergo. If you’re like me and you’ve never been part of the Department of Public Works, take a moment to contemplate what it must be like: you arrive in a barren, empty desert and spend weeks building stuff with a small group of other people. Then 50,000 people show up to party, make art, and set things on fire in the city you just built. They disappear a week later, leaving you alone again. The strongest of drugs leave their mark on the minds of the user, and this is especially true of those who spend a month or more each year freebasing playa dust.

Thanks to Ghoast for suggesting this entry.

Other entries in A Burner Lexicon can be found at

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  • Shep


    “Then they remain after the event for up to a month to return the desert to pristine condition.”

    Many remain for more than a month, in fact as I write this on Oct 19th, there are still DPW on the playa. And some must stay to maintain the permanent infrastructure in Gerlach and at the ranch.

    • Kit

      Thanks for stopping by with your correction! I have updated the entry to reflect it, let me know what you think.

      What kind of work are people doing at the DPW at this late date? Is it still cleanup?

  • Bean

    Yeah, people were doing clean up this year until gosh 4 days ago or so? Usually it ends around Oct 10th or 15th or something but since it rained so much out there right before the BLM inspection, they finished it in a shallow lake rather than the dusty playa. And much later than normal. But of course still doing an awesome job.

    • Kit

      I wish I was hardcore enough — or healthy enough — to do this kind of work and I have nothing but respect for the DPW people who were out on the playa so late in the year. I hope my current version of the lexicon entry reflects how hard they work.

  • Witch Doctor

    I’m shipping out there to work DPW in about a week, staying through early October, and I can’t even explain to you how excited I am about it. Freebasing playa dust for months at a time, year after year, will definitely alter your brain.

    The best way I’ve ever been able to describe what DPW is like to other people is that it’s like summer camp for socially awkward workaholics, with drugs and fire.

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