TULALIP – Every June, the acrid scent of spent gunpowder drifts from a lot out behind the Tulalip Casino and out over the Tulalip Indian Reservation.
To some, the biting smell heralds sleepless nights filled with the booms, crackles and whistles of fireworks.
To others, it’s the perfume of days with family and nighttime shows of the best pyrotechnics amateurs can hope for.
It’s called Boom City – a makeshift town of 158 stands, all selling every type of firework imaginable.
“This is an adrenaline rush,” said David Fryberg Sr., a Tulalip tribal member.
Fryberg leaned out the wide front window of “Hang Loose,” a plywood stand filled with sparklers, fountains and cherry bombs. He looked down the aisle of stands – “Pink Cadillac,” “Louie Louie,” “Flaming Arrow.”
“You’re constantly hollering, trying to get people to come into your stand,” Fryberg said.
For three weeks leading up to Independence Day, members of the Tulalip Tribes sell their wares.
The aisles fill with people who flock to Boom City to purchase – and light – fireworks. Just beyond the cluster of stands is the “Detonation Area,” where hundreds of charred casings are left to smolder among the brush.
Tribal members have sold fireworks for decades. Thirty years ago, they haggled over explosives stored in the open trunks of their cars.
Eventually, the sellers organized and began erecting seasonal stands near Tulalip Bay. When the tribes opened a health clinic there in 2003, Boom City moved to the gravel lot behind the Tulalip Casino.
Fireworks sold there are illegal in many local cities, but police and state troopers don’t have jurisdiction over the reservation, Washington State Patrol spokesman Kirk Rudeen said.
Fireworks aren’t allowed in Quil Ceda Village, the Tulalip Tribes’ retail and casino complex, where Boom City is located, Village Deputy General Manager Steve Gobin said. Boom City gets an annual variance, he said.
Each booth is owned and operated as a private business, said Mike Dunn, chairman of the Boom City Committee.
“This helps,” he said. “When my kids were in school, it did a good part of their school clothes. It pays the bills, feeds and clothes.”
Each year, Boom City becomes a home base for hundreds of tribal members.
Meals are shared in narrow alleyways between stands. Women twist one another’s hair into intricate braids. Children ride bikes through the aisles.
Once the sun goes down, stand owners show off their pyrotechnic prowess in the Detonation Area. The show lasts all night.
All the fun also has a payoff.
Jesus Echevarria said he makes up to $10,000 each summer. It’s not unusual for people to spend $1,000 or more on fireworks, he said.
Booths feature 5-foot-tall family packs for $350, $600, even $700.
“If they’re serious and they want a good display, they’ll pay it,” he said.
Sellers get their fireworks from wholesalers who pull vans and semitrailers up to the edge of the lot. John Rivera, owner of Brick House Fireworks, stood in front of a row of shipping containers from China. He traveled there, to Liuyang, a city known as the fireworks capital of the world, twice this year to design his own line.
“It was seven days each time, and the second time we spent 70 hours designing,” he said.
Rivera and other sellers speak the language of fireworks.
Artillery displays. Multi-shot. High octane. Five-hundred-gram cakes. They spend days planning their own July 4 bonanzas.
“I do 24 cakes, light them all at once with five people lighting them,” Echevarria said. “It’s a beautiful display, but it goes up quick.”