A Brief History of the Santa Ana Winds

A giant tumbleweed blocks traffic on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood on Jan. 23, 1974. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Triggering allergies, fraying nerves, and alarming fire-prone communities, the Santa Ana winds have long been a fact of life in Southern California -- the unadvertised price residents pay for the region's otherwise idyllic weather. And though the winds -- which arrive in the fall, peak in December, and depart in the spring -- are invisible to photographers' lenses, cameras have recorded the destruction this recurrent weather phenomenon has wrought throughout the region's history.

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Southern California usually sits in a delicate climatic balance. On one side, the chilly waters of the Pacific, transported from Alaska via the California Current, stabilize air temperatures and provide a ready source of moisture. On the other, a palisade of mountains blocks the extremes of the desert from coastal communities.

The Santa Anas upset that balance, ushering in hot, dry, desert-like conditions. But while the Santa Anas are often called desert winds, the term is misleading; the winds are not simply blowing desert air over Southern California's coastal plain. Instead, Santa Anas result from a cool, dry air mass that hovers over the continental interior of the American West. When that air descends from the higher-elevation basins to sea level, it warms and becomes even drier. (A similar phenomenon, termed a föhn wind, warms Central Europe.) Funneled through the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes, the moving air gains speed and destructive power.

Local lore offers several competing explanations for how the winds got their name.

One holds that the name finds its provenance in an Indian word for wind, which Spanish missionaries, detecting an evil presence in the winds, liked for its homonymy with "Satan." Another claims a saintly rather than devilish origin of the name: while camping in present-day Orange County in 1769, the Portola expedition supposedly encountered a fierce windstorm on Saint Ann's Day. Yet another suggests Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna as the winds' eponym.

Scholars who have looked into the name's origins generally agree that it derives from Santa Ana Canyon, the portal where the Santa Ana River -- as well as a congested Riverside (CA-91) Freeway -- leaves Riverside County and enters Orange County. When the Santa Anas blow, winds can reach exceptional speeds in this narrow gap between the Puente Hills and Santa Ana Mountains.

Winds were ferocious in Santa Ana Canyon on the night of January 6, 1847, when U.S. forces under Commodore Robert Stockton camped near the canyon during their conquest of Los Angeles. Stockton's diary describes their ordeal:

Taking advantage of a deep ditch for one face of the camp, it was laid off in a very defensible position between the town and the river, expecting the men would have an undisturbed night's rest...In this hope we were mistaken. The wind blew a hurricane (something unusual in this part of California), and the atmosphere was filled with particles of fine dust, so that one could not see and but with difficulty breathe.

If the windstorm Stockton and his troops endured was the source of the name, little evidence exists in the historical record. Subsequent written descriptions lacked the winds' distinctive name, referring to them simply as "northeasters." It was not until 1880 -- nearly 37 years after Stockton jotted down his observations -- that the earliest known written use of the name "Santa Ana" appeared in an article in the Los Angeles Evening Express.

A car wrecked by a 75-foot cypress tree, felled by strong winds in Palms in 1955. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Strong winds uprooted this 75-foot black acacia in Santa Monica on March 20, 1952. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Children play on a downed tree at Converse and Gage in South Los Angeles on March 1, 1952. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Passersby stop to look at shattered windows at Broadway and 9th in downtown Los Angeles on March 1, 1952. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Whatever the origins of their name, the winds have made memorable appearances in the region's literature.

In "Two Years Before the Mast," Richard Henry Dana recounts a "violent northeaster" in 1836 that forced his ship, the Pilgrim, to leave its anchorage in San Pedro and seek refuge in the leeside of Santa Catalina Island.

In his memoir, "Sixty Years in Southern California," the Jewish-German Angeleno Harris Newmark recalls an 1865 windstorm that "struck Los Angeles amidships, unroofing many houses and blowing down orchards."

Agriculture dominated the Southern California landscape for much of its history, and
the prospect of Santa Ana winds haunted farmers and orange growers. When the winds came, they destroyed crops and suffocated urbanized areas with dust -- a phenomenon that fed the growing misconception of Los Angeles as a desert.

In John Fante's "Ask the Dust," Arturo Bandini looks out the window of his Bunker Hill apartment and observes a palm tree, "its crusted trunk choked with dust and sand that blew in from the Mojave and Santa Ana deserts."

By the time Raymond Chandler captured the winds in his 1938 story "Red Wind," they menaced not only crops but civil order, as well:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas 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 husband's necks. Anything can happen.

Joan Didion picked up where Chandler left off in 1965. Her "Los Angeles Notebook," later collected in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," is perhaps the classic literary treatment of the Santa Ana winds:

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 is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.

...[T]he violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.

An oil derrick in Santa Ana, damaged by gusty winds. Courtesy of the Santa Ana History Room Photograph Collection, Santa Ana Public Library.

A brush fire, fueled by Santa Ana winds, sweeps through Topanga Canyon on Nov. 4, 1948, eventually claiming 25 homes. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Fire fighters rush to confront a wildfire on Mt. Washington on May 13, 1961. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Fire officials observe destruction caused by a wildfire near Lake Arrowhead in 1953. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

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About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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I LOVE the Santa Ana winds! They blow the air clean and prune the trees and bushes. It is nature in all it's power and beauty, and this article, and photos, is a great testament to the Santa Ana's history. I wish there was more, but I am grateful for this. Thank you!