Firecracker Alley: It's about more than fireworks
Every year on Puyallup land, near the Port of Tacoma, tribal members gather to sell fireworks. It’s an event that draws tribal members together to socialize and make some money. But it’s an annual tradition that may not be around forever.
The delta of the Puyallup River is a place of industry. It’s home to freight companies, a proposed liquified-natural gas plant, and the Port of Tacoma.
The original Emerald Queen Casino, an old riverboat, is docked down there on Puyallup land. In its abandoned parking lot are rows and rows of brightly colored plywood fireworks stands, with RVs and food trucks nearby.
This is Firecracker Alley.
“If you had a farmers market and you made all of the things explosive – that’s kind of what you have,” says Ashley Nicole Lewis, a member of the Quinault Tribe.
She owns a stand at Firecracker Alley called Bad Ash Fireworks with a Puyallup family member.
More than a hundred Puyallup families gather here each year to sell fireworks. It draws customers from across the state and beyond.
Katie Miles is one of several frybread vendors who sets up at Firecracker Alley.
“We have very little chances to all come together, especially with Covid having happened," she says.
"It’s like a big fireworks family. We like to support each other, we like to invest in each other, and try to grow our tribal economy,” she says.
Another tribal member invested in her business, after tasting her food. He bought her a food trailer. Everybody has stories like that.
Mark Villegas owns a stall called Sons of Thunder Fireworks. He says he learned how to sell from other stall owners.
“We didn’t know how to do any of that, and these guys actually helped us, took us under their wing, showed us what to do,” he says.
Villegas is making a sales pitch to a family that drove up from Oregon.
“If you want to go for themes, we’ve also got something like Team Magnus. You’ve got four cakes, all of them do something different.”
The family tells me you can’t buy this stuff where they live.
“It’s illegal there. So you gotta come here for all of it,” the mother said.
Many places have banned the sale of fireworks. But tribes like the Puyallup are sovereign. So the tribe makes its own rules. It sells licenses to tribal members to operate the stands.
The extra income from selling fireworks has helped a lot of tribal members and their extended families over the years.
“I have four girls and two granddaughters, this has paid for every single one of their cars, it’s paid for college," says Daryle Barnes, owner of Wheelin' Dealin' Daryle's Fireworks. "It’s paid for every single – you know, I just sent my middle daughter off to University of Oregon last year. Have another child leaving for the east coast, Ivy League, next year. So this has provided me with a resource to better my childrens’ life.”
Barnes' stall faces Buckshot Dale’s, where Dale Varbel made enough money in recent years to buy a used fishing boat.
“I like to invest my money where I can make more money,” he says.
Some salmon runs have declined in recent years. So he’s outfitted the boat to catch other things, like crab, spot prawns and winter chum.
“If I didn’t have these fireworks, you know, for myself, and being able to sell fireworks for myself, I wouldn’t be able to come up with that kind of extra cash to supply the needs for that boat, because it’s been pretty costly.”
Varbel says he reliably makes $20,000 a year, over just a few weeks at Firecracker Alley. Last year, when the pandemic canceled fireworks shows, he made $40,000. This year, with prices spiking due to supply shortages, he’s hoping for $100,000.
It’s good money. But it comes at a time when the future of fireworks is very uncertain.
Just down the road from Firecracker Alley is Fire Station 5. Joe Meinecke with the Tacoma Fire Department says his department responded to 32 fireworks-related fires last year.
He still remembers one of them. It was at an apartment building.
“The fires blocked off their egress so people had to jump off the second floor of their building," he says. "And I recall standing there about three o’clock in the morning at the scene thinking, 'This incident was 100% preventable.'”
The city of Tacoma is trying to stamp out some of those fires before they start by doubling its fines this year for lighting off personal fireworks. Unincorporated King County has banned them completely, starting next year.
Fireworks vendors understand the spread of fireworks bans could mean for Firecracker Alley.
“I don’t believe it’s gonna last forever," says Dale Varbels. "It’s like the fish: Where did it go? You have to have alternatives to make life better while it’s here. So I have to sell fireworks. And I know it’s not gonna be here forever."
For now though, the tribe has a parking lot roped off next to Firecracker Alley, where people can light off their fireworks legally, even if they can’t bring them home.
This story is part of our series, The Main Street Project, which looks at economic recovery one street at a time.