Santa Ana Condition: Winds of Myth and Tragedy


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 husbands' necks. Anything can happen. - From "Red Wind" by Raymond Chandler


The Santa Ana winds returned in the early hours of Friday morning, blowing through suburban neighborhoods in gusts that pulled the leaves from street trees and scattered them to mingle promiscuously with the fallen leaves of other streets. Real estate signs on their right-angle scaffolds swayed. Some premature Halloween garlands departed to the southwest. Some sleepers tossed uneasily in the drying air.

These winds blow from the northeast into the Los Angeles Basin from the Mojave Desert through the passes and canyons of the encircling mountains, accelerating their velocity and increasing their pressure with each lost foot of altitude. Some wind gusts in some seasons have reached hurricane force.

The Santa Anas are insistent weather, not our climate of distraction.

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In our myths of this place, as told by Chandler and Didion and others, the cutting Santa Ana winds infect dissatisfied wives and argumentative husbands with thoughts of mayhem. The winds also are said to presage earthquakes.

The Santa Anas funnel into the orderly green of the Los Angeles Basin all the haunted and brown emptiness that lies outside. The spores of the fungus that cause Valley Fever are blown in on the Santa Ana winds.

The dry winds of October and early November are the engines of tragedy. Firefighters across Southern California -- particularly in foothill communities -- had begun preparations for wildfire suppression early this week, moving equipment into position at the foot of ridges where past fires have roared down on homes with the speed and noise of a freight train.

Every fire is different, of course, but the inevitability of fire is unchanging. The hillsides above Los Angeles have been drying for months. The seed capsules of native plants that only open after the passing of a wildfire are waiting. The non-native eucalyptus trees, themselves evolved by an ecology of fire, have piled oily bark and discarded limbs at the edges of housing tracts, like the pyre of an auto-da-fe.

Much of Los Angeles was made for burning, although we persist in thinking otherwise.

The Santa Ana winds have a lifecycle of threat. Each siege persists for about three days. On Sunday, perhaps, the "red flag" warnings on foothill streets will come down, the spindly branches of eucalyptus trees on the slopes above will grow still, and the itch to violence will end as the humidity rises.

Until the winds blow again.

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