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The Burning Man bump

October 10, 2013, 11:21 AM UTC
Photo: Christopher Michel/Wikimedia Commons

This year upwards of 60,000 revelers (a.k.a. Burners) descended upon Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for a week for the 27th year of the Burning Man festival. Those attendees need supplies to stay hydrated, pitch camp, decorate their cars, and construct the far-out art installations the event is famous for. Burners stock up at Home Depot. They come in droves to the stores in Reno and Carson City and Spanish Springs. Clint Echevarria, Home Depot’s district manager for northern Nevada, has never been to the festival, but it’s on his bucket list. “For two weeks out of the year,” he says, “it’s some of the most exciting times in the aisles.”

During that period, the stores pedaled three times as much bottled water as usual — 12,968 units — and more than six times as many dust masks — 6,451, to be exact. Flashlights and padlocks also sold unusually well — at an increase of 51% and 39%, respectively. But Burners need more than just the basics. They are “very passionate people,” Echevarria explains. So, he adds, “Anything with color, anything they can use to decorate — whether it be their vehicle or their art project — we’ll put it out there to help them with their thought process.”

This year, Home Depot thought bags of colored rubber bands might appeal to Burners — a good guess, it turned out. “Those things really sold well,” Echevarria says, shooting up from the 450 bags sold in an average week to 12,800 bags during the Burning Man prelude. Even more mundane household items foster Burning Man’s creative ethos. Burners buy carpet to adhere to the outside of their cars and RVs. Aluminum ducting, the kind you use for heating and air conditioning vents, is pliable and therefore popular; you can cut it, fold it, or bend it. Echevarria recalls customers intent on building a mini-castle; a giant sword; a bicycle; “literally, anything you can think of.” Often store associates advise on the construction logistics, though they try not to ask Burners exactly what they’re building, since many prefer to keep their ideas under wraps. Rather, “you let them tell you,” the district manager says. Wood, of course, is Burning Man’s lifeblood.

The event culminates with a blaze that consumes the massive, eponymous effigy. And in 2007, the year an arsonist torched the 40-foot tall “man” two days before the ritualistic conclusion, it seemed the festival’s entire raison d’être hinged on a call to the Home Depot. At the time Echevarria was the store manager at Spanish Springs, the Home Depot location closest to the Black Rock Desert site. “They needed wood, quickly,” he remembers. How much? “It was three to five trucks of lumber that we had to send out to them so they could get that man built back up.” The organizers succeeded.

A shorter version of this story appeared in the October 28, 2013 issue of Fortune.