Those Santa Ana Winds

With the disastrous fires and high winds occurring this week in California, you don't need a calendar to know it's October -- season of the Santa Ana winds. I've been writing about them here for 10 years. From my post in 2007:

The Southern California fires are all over the news. Every time I see hear the words "the Santa Ana winds" I start thinking about writer Joan Didion (who just happens to be my favorite author) and how she captured the phenomenon with such great imagery in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), her book about Haight Ashbury during the summer of 1967.

To give you a flavor, I've tracked down some of what she wrote and quote below:

From Slouching Towards Bethlehem:

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night.

I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.

I recall being told, when I first moved to Los Angeles and was living on an isolated beach, that the Indians would throw themselves into the sea when the bad wind blew. I could see why. The Pacific turned ominously glossy during a Santa Ana period, and one woke in the night troubled not only by the peacocks screaming in the olive trees but by the eerie absence of surf. The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called "earthquake weather." My only neighbor would not come out of her house for days, and there were no lights at night, and her husband roamed the place with a machete. One day he would tell me that he had heard a trespasser, the next a rattlesnake.

"On nights like that," Raymond Chandler once wrote about the Santa Ana, "every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen." That was the kind of wind it was. I did not know then that there was any basis for the effect it had on all of us, but it turns out to be another of those cases in which science bears out folk wisdom.

The Santa Ana, which is named for one of the canyons it rushers through, is foehn wind, like the foehn of Austria and Switzerland and the hamsin of Israel. There are a number of persistent malevolent winds, perhaps the best know of which are the mistral of France and the Mediterranean sirocco, but a foehn wind has distinct characteristics: it occurs on the leeward slope of a mountain range and, although the air begins as a cold mass, it is warmed as it comes down the mountain and appears finally as a hot dry wind. Whenever and wherever foehn blows, doctors hear about headaches and nausea and allergies, about "nervousness," about "depression."

In Los Angeles some teachers do not attempt to conduct formal classes during a Santa Ana, because the children become unmanageable. In Switzerland the suicide rate goes up during the foehn, and in the courts of some Swiss cantons the wind is considered a mitigating circumstance for crime. Surgeons are said to watch the wind, because blood does not clot normally during a foehn.

A few years ago an Israeli physicist discovered that not only during such winds, but for the ten or twelve hours which precede them, the air carries an unusually high ratio of positive to negative ions. No one seems to know exactly why that should be; some talk about friction and others suggest solar disturbances. In any case the positive ions are there, and what an excess of positive ions does, in the simplest terms, is make people unhappy. One cannot get much more mechanistic than that.

Easterners commonly complain that there is no "weather" at all in Southern California, that the days and the seasons slip by relentlessly, numbingly bland. That is quite misleading. In fact the climate is characterized by infrequent but violent extremes: two periods of torrential subtropical rains which continue for weeks and wash out the hills and send subdivisions sliding toward the sea; about twenty scattered days a year of the Santa Ana, which, with its incendiary dryness, invariably means fire. At the first prediction of a Santa Ana, the Forest Service flies men and equipment from northern California into the southern forests, and the Los Angeles Fire Department cancels its ordinary non-firefighting routines. The Santa Ana caused Malibu to burn as it did in 1956, and Bel Air in 1961, and Santa Barbara in 1964. In the winter of 1966-67 eleven men were killed fighting a Santa Ana fire that spread through the San Gabriel Mountains.

Just to watch the front-page news out of Los Angeles during a Santa Ana is to get very close to what it is about the place. The longest single Santa Ana period in recent years was in 1957, and it lasted not the usual three or four days but fourteen days, from November 21 until December 4. On the first day 25,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains were burning, with gusts reaching 100 miles an hour. In town, the wind reached Force 12, or hurricane force, on the Beaufort Scale; oil derricks were toppled and people ordered off the downtown streets to avoid injury from flying objects. On November 22 the fire in the San Gabriels was out of control. On November 24 six people were killed in automobile accidents, and by the end of the week the Los Angeles Times was keeping a box score of traffic deaths. On November 26 a prominent Pasadena attorney, depressed about money, shot and killed his wife, their two sons and himself. On November 27 a South Gate divorcée, twenty-two, was murdered and thrown from a moving car. On November 30 the San Gabriel fire was still out of control, and the wind in town was blowing eighty miles an hour. On the first day of December four people died violently, and on the third the wind began to break.

It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles's deepest image of itself. Nathaniel West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust, and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end.

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.

Southern California is just one of the places that always makes me think of Joan Didion and recall her writing. Others: Las Vegas (Maria (Mar-eye-ah) in Play it As it Lays); Kuala Lumpur (Inez Victor in Democracy); Honolulu (The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in The White Album, excerpted here.) I could go on, but I'll stop here.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Great post J. (5.00 / 1) (#10)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 11:27:26 AM EST
    In my area the Santa Anas have been fairly quiet so far.

    I think a big part of why the winds get under your skin so much is the constantness of the noise; it's inescapable for days at a time.

    Also the frustration at the dirt and destruction it does to your patio furniture, bbq, etc. And the dirt and leaves that it blows into your house and garage through cracks you didn't know existed.

    And your skin gets so dry, so itchy. You feel it when you smile; the skin on your cheeks feels tight and chalky.

    And often you smell smoke, even if the fires are dozens of miles away. Like the wind's noise, the smell is inescapable, for hours or days at a time. No door can keep the smell outside. And not yummy fireplace smoke, but, rather, acrid stuff from burning tumbleweeds and house paint.

    Luckily they usually only last a couple days at a time.

    No winds for my area so far today, (none / 0) (#33)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Oct 13, 2017 at 11:19:16 AM EST
    but the visibility is hazy and the smell of smoke permeates. Not sure where the fire is.

    "There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."
    - Raymond Chandler, "Red Wind," Dime Detective (January 1938)


    I was warned when I came to LA (none / 0) (#1)
    by CaptHowdy on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 07:14:39 AM EST
    They can end relationships and take the paint off your car.

    While all those bad Santa Ana winds stories (none / 0) (#2)
    by fishcamp on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 07:53:51 AM EST
    are likely true, there is one positive aspect.  They are called offshore winds by surfers, and hold the wave up to make it last longer.  It also produces those beautiful wave photos with white plumes blowing off the waves.  Surfers love Santa Ana winds.

    The (none / 0) (#3)
    by FlJoe on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 08:30:28 AM EST
    best surf we get around these parts, is when the big storms pass to the east close enough to produce a stiff offshore breeze as they move to the north while still producing the huge swell.

    Santa Ana Winds (none / 0) (#4)
    by CaptHowdy on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 08:40:23 AM EST
    Santa Ana's (none / 0) (#5)
    by MKS on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 09:31:02 AM EST
    are good for scuba diving.  

    October is the best month for offshore scuba.  The waves are flattened....cool water from the deeper parts creates an upwelling of clearer water--so your visibility is better.


    Lobster season (none / 0) (#9)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 11:06:40 AM EST
    True (none / 0) (#11)
    by MKS on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 08:12:20 PM EST
    I only tried it once.   Didn't get anything.

    And, it is just a horrid thing, imo.  The lobsters that are caught actually scream...not a high volume scream, but muted.



    Yes lobsters do scream, (none / 0) (#12)
    by fishcamp on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 09:27:54 PM EST
    especially when dropped into a pot of boiling water.  

    octopuses, otters, etc.

    i have never eaten lobster (none / 0) (#15)
    by CaptHowdy on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 10:49:18 AM EST
    i could, having spent many years in NY tenaments, never ever eat a ything that looked that much like  a giant cockroach.

    but seriously, not a real seafood guy.  but something that actually screams when you drop it in the pot, no.


    They have no vocal cords. (5.00 / 1) (#16)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 10:59:43 AM EST
    They have no more ability to scream than the NYC cockroaches you stepped on.

    They sure do (none / 0) (#17)
    by CST on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 12:55:13 PM EST
    Fight though when they see/feel the hot water.

    Who can blame them? (none / 0) (#18)
    by jondee on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 03:11:55 PM EST
    Interesting that they were considered junk food in colonial times. How things change.

    I have heard it (none / 0) (#20)
    by MKS on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 03:41:43 PM EST
    it is not a normal scream but it is a horrid if low volume noise.   No vocal cords needed.

    Vocal cords absolutely needed. (5.00 / 1) (#22)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 03:59:51 PM EST
    If anything, it's the sound of boiling water escaping from the shell.

    I've boiled many, never heard a thing.


    I've never heard (5.00 / 1) (#29)
    by Zorba on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 08:44:55 PM EST
    a lobster scream, either.  Or make any kind of noise.
    And we, too, have cooked and eaten lots of lobsters.

    Still not my thing (none / 0) (#24)
    by MKS on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 05:56:05 PM EST
    I was once a PADI Instructor, and lobsters and night dives with a bunch of divers hunting lobsters not my favorite.

    Fair enough. (none / 0) (#25)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 06:21:36 PM EST
    Lobsters (none / 0) (#27)
    by MKS on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 07:36:53 PM EST
    are clearly not protected, so they can be hunted.  Abalone, however, not so.

    In SoCal, there used to be abalone and sea otters and kelp forests, and all sorts of wildlife just offshore.  First the sea otters were hunted out of existence down here.   The Sea Otters used to eat the sea urchins, which then without a natural predator at all the kelp.  Now there is nothing but sea urchins.....

    Out on San Clemente Island, it is still fairly nice.....but it takes a long time to get there...


    Lobsters are protected down here MKS, (none / 0) (#28)
    by fishcamp on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 08:03:26 PM EST
    and it is a huge economical boost  here in the keys.  Unfortunately, due to hurricane Irma, we are having a very bad season.  The lobster men had just put out their traps for the season, but had to pick them up a week later due to Irma.  If they don't pick them up they tangle into twisted groups stuck in shallow water and are lost.  Some lobster men have thousands of traps.  Our lobsters are actually Crayfish and are not like the True lobsters from up north, but are very tasty.

    Abalone are very protected, now. (none / 0) (#32)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Oct 13, 2017 at 01:36:39 AM EST
    Not that that stops some people from doing what they will...

    And, fwiw, abalone have been under severe pressure for many centuries. The Chumash midden heaps (garbage dumps) are full of very small immature abalone shells indicating heavy predation from the Chumash.

    Also, the otters are making a big comeback on the central coast, apparently due to the excess of urchins to feed on.

    However, north of SF and south of SB not so much. Apparently the Great Whites are also making a big comeback in those areas, and otters make a yummy meal for them.

    The kelp does get eaten by urchins, but sea water temperature is the 800 lb gorilla. The warmer water cycle of the past couple years have been a boon for fishing (tuna, dorado, yellow tail, etc.) but kelp doesn't fare so well in the warmer waters.

    It looks like this year's forecasts say that the waters will cycle back to cooler waters, but who the heck knows for sure.

    Cool that you were a padi instructor. I'm padi certified for years and am going to start freediving soon...


    My son won't go near seafood (none / 0) (#19)
    by jondee on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 03:16:50 PM EST
    I on the other hand, having grown up on LI and in New England, had shellfish, fish, and eels practically shoved down my throat.

    An eel is just an elongated fish btw, and pretty tasty if prepared right.


    An eel swimming (none / 0) (#21)
    by MKS on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 03:46:43 PM EST
    at you at depth will put some vinegar in your heart.

    what about soft shell crab? (none / 0) (#26)
    by Jeralyn on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 06:36:04 PM EST
    Do they scream too? On Worst Cooks in America last night, they featured dropping live lobsters and soft shell crabs into pots. The soft shell crabs make a big fuss -- tentacles or legs moving in every direction at once -- I eat a lot more s.s. crabs than I do lobsters.

    In the 70's I had a pet lobster that I named Newburgh. I kept him on a long rope and used to take him for walks -- especially when I had to go on ski trips to places like Utah (since I don't ski and would be bored to death) -- people didn't even really notice. He's now in one of my storage units somewhere, I would never have thrown him away. I think I last saw him around 2008. (No he wasn't a live pet lobster but a long dead one, as big as a small cat, all in one piece. )


    J., if you (none / 0) (#30)
    by Zorba on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 08:57:24 PM EST
    or anyone else is worried about cooking live crabs or lobsters, put them in your freezer for an hour or two.
    It will numb them, or even kill them outright.

    Are you getting softshell crabs here in Denver? (none / 0) (#31)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Thu Oct 12, 2017 at 11:14:00 PM EST
    If so, where at? I haven't even found a decent crabcake here.

    As a resident of (5.00 / 1) (#34)
    by Zorba on Fri Oct 13, 2017 at 01:07:20 PM EST
    Maryland, I would venture to guess that you can't get a really great crabcake anywhere out there.  😉

    Only when... (5.00 / 1) (#35)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Fri Oct 13, 2017 at 03:25:33 PM EST
    my Mom comes to visit and makes them for me.

    But yes, I've been spoiled by all the time I've spent in MD.


    How true....... (5.00 / 1) (#36)
    by NYShooter on Fri Oct 13, 2017 at 04:57:05 PM EST
    When I was working, and, living in Hartford, Ct. I had a client (chain store owner) outside of Baltimore, Md. Over the years we had developed a ritual: I would extend him an additional 5% discount on all his purchases (his purchases came to several million dollars) in return for his flying me down there to participate in a Fall Crab Cake Festival of his choosing. Each year, a different location.

    And, you know what? Even though his discounts came to thousands of dollars, to this day, I believe I got the better of the deal.

    Mmmm, mm, I can smell'm even now.


    G&M is my favorite place... (none / 0) (#37)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Fri Oct 13, 2017 at 05:57:55 PM EST
    for crab cakes - and they ship.

    I make a pretty mean crab cake, (none / 0) (#38)
    by Zorba on Sat Oct 14, 2017 at 11:51:43 AM EST
    myself.  But not as good as the crab cakes made by one of my friends, who was born and raised here.
    Man, do we love getting invited to her house for dinner!
    (And yes, we do reciprocate.  I serve her and her husband Greek food, which they like a lot.)

    Living in Maryland is becoming (5.00 / 1) (#40)
    by Militarytracy on Sun Oct 15, 2017 at 03:16:39 PM EST
    Wedded to the smell of Old Bay lodged under my fingernails once a week from a seafood meal. I have to get home and do some dishes to get rid of it.

    Whole Foods has them during season and (none / 0) (#39)
    by Jeralyn on Sun Oct 15, 2017 at 11:29:41 AM EST
    the Vietnamese groceries on South Federal have them, as does one in Boulder on 28th.

    New Saigon at 630 S Federal serves them, both as an appetizer and entree. Probably frozen, and definitely deep fried, but very good.

    I order them (delivery) from a Thai/Vietmamese restaurant (Spicy Basil on Broadway around Ellsworth) and although frozen, they make them pretty good.

    They don't make crab cakes with them, they just serve the whole crab, it's pretty small.


    The wildfire threatening my sister's house (none / 0) (#6)
    by Peter G on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 10:24:44 AM EST
    in Redwood Valley, Mendocino County, is getting less publicity, for understandable reasons, despite now encompassing tens of thousands of acres, having destroyed more than 50 homes (one of them the home of my nephew-in-law's grandparents) and killing at least 4 people, and being (as of last night) 0% contained. The family is still under mandatory evacuation. The firefighters are so overstretched it is unbelievable, and the "Diablo" winds, which died down yesterday, are predicted to get worse again tonight.

    This is buried in another thread (none / 0) (#7)
    by CaptHowdy on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 10:32:27 AM EST
    From my cousin in fire country

    it is scary.  Total devastation in some areas of Santa Rosa about 10 miles north of here.  We were packed and ready to leave the area yesterday morning.  Some areas of Rohnert Park were on mandatory evacuation but later it was downgraded to voluntary evacuation.  Our area was told to pack our cars and be ready to evacuate.  We never had to leave.  I think the fire that threatened us was contained yesterday.  Still the fires in Santa Rosa are not contained and ongoing.  Many areas of the northern part of Santa Rosa completely destroyed.  I have posed some things on Facebook if you can get to my page to look. Air quality is bad.  It is very smokey and smells like fire.,  You know the drill having lived in the LA area for years.  I'll keep in touch

    I have heard no more but I know fires are still in their area


    The Santa Rosa area, which you describe (none / 0) (#8)
    by Peter G on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 11:00:50 AM EST
    is 30-40 miles south of my sister's area, and involves a separate fire. That was one I referred to as understandably attracting more attention, as it has burned parts of a small city (highly unusual for a wildfire), after jumping a six-lane highway (also unusual). We were in Santa Rosa this July, because that's where the airport is for visiting my sister and family.

    The Year of Magical Thinking. (none / 0) (#13)
    by oculus on Wed Oct 11, 2017 at 11:51:45 PM EST
    Thought-provoking book. But the play, with Vanessa Redgrave, was disappointing.