Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Santa Ana Winds still blow

Detail from a 1936 Orange County historical map by Gladyce Ashby and Fred Groos for the WPA. Note the PR-friendly term "Santana, which had only been in sporadic use for the Santa Ana winds for 14 years.
When Orange Countians brag to relatives “back east” about our perfect weather, we usually fail to mention our meteorological dirty little secret: The Santa Ana winds. This odd phenomenon is among Southern California’s most characteristic and most unpleasant features. The winds have such an impact that they permeate our history, folklore and popular culture: From Bad Religion’s 2004 hit “Los Angeles Is Burning," back to Richard Henry Dana’s 1836 complaint about a "violent northeaster" at San Pedro.

Historian Eric Plunkett points out a very early reference. In a letter dated Dec. 31, 1812, the Acting Commandant of the San Diego Presidio, Lt. Francisco Maria Ruiz, reported "winds from the northeast that caused great damage to the wheat crop" at San Juan Capistrano.

In early January 1847, Commodore Stockton and his troops camped at the mouth of Santa Ana Canyon and were beset by the winds, which, he wrote, "continued to blow violently [and] which the enemy should have taken advantage of to attack us. Our weapons were chiefly fire-arms; his the lance; ...In such a gale... the difficulty of loading our arms would have proven a serious matter."

The Santa Anas begin when high and low pressure systems are arranged in such a way that thin, high-altitude air is pushed rapidly down the southwestern slopes of the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains.  As the air descends it becomes more compressed, which both heats and dries the air. In short, it’s miserable.

These hot, sporadic gales from the northeast drive our worst wildfires, uproot trees, ravage crops, damage roofs, chap lips until they’re bloody, turn skin and eyes dry and itchy, send the allergic into paroxysms, and send asthmatics to the hospital. In the days before eucalyptus wind breaks, it was common for the Santa Anas to flatten whole structures, as they did with El Modena’s first Quaker church in 1887 and with one of Tustin’s still-under-construction blimp hangars in 1942. 
The winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon (shown here around the 1910s), which runs from the east edge of Placentia to the west edge of Corona. The canyon, in turn, is named for the Santa Ana River running through it.
Some even believe that the dry winds have an effect on our personalities. Raymond Chandler, describing the Santa Ana winds in his 1938 short story “Red Wind,” wrote, “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.” 

The winds are named for Santa Ana Canyon where they blow with tremendous force and from whence they seem to emanate. The earliest published reference yet found to “Santa Ana winds” was in the January 7, 1871 edition of the Anaheim Gazette, which reported that potentially rain-bearing clouds had been "obliged to give way, and leave the field to the dry and major-curse bearing Santa Ana wind."
The Santa Ana winds have driven most of Orange County’s worst brushfires, including the terrible Laguna Beach Fire of Oct. 1993.
In fact, it was quite possibly the early pioneers of Anaheim who gave the wind its name. Orange County Historian Jim Sleeper once suggested as much. And certainly Anaheim would have enjoyed seeing the hated winds permanently connected to their rival city, Santa Ana.

Meanwhile, the people of the City of Santa Ana have never been pleased to have their name attached to such an unpleasant phenomenon. Alternate names have been applied over time, including devil winds, zantannas, northers, red winds or east winds. But no name ever replaced “Santa Ana.” 
Detail from 1929 map of Orange County by Jean Goodwin for the AAUW.
In 1887, the Santa Ana Herald’s editor began promoting the name “Riverside winds” as an alternative.  Sleeper pointed out that it really would have been a better name, since Santa Ana is “only a recipient and not the source of these flatulent blasts of Mother Nature.”

To this, Riverside County Historian Steve Lech responds, "The problem with this logic is that they don't originate here in Riverside either. Perhaps if [people] wanted to name them for their origin, the term 'Cajon Winds' or 'Mohave Winds' would be more apropos."
Sign on a basement door in the old O.C. Register building, Santa Ana (Author's photo)
The Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce and local real estate salesmen began complaining about the moniker “Santa Ana winds” as early as 1902. They were no doubt dismayed when the U.S. Weather Bureau finally codified the name by identifying the phenomenon as a “Santa Ana” wind in a 1903 book entitled Climatology of California.

But it wasn’t until 1922 that Santa Ana resident Cotton Mather (a descendant of THE Cotton Mather,) proposed changing the unpleasant wind’s name to Santana, to lessen its perceived connection to the city. He told the Santa Ana Register, erroneously, that santana is an Indian word meaning windstorm, and he encouraged local newspapers to start using the new name. 

Although most people continued to call the winds by their correct name, one occasionally still hears an unwitting reference to Mather’s “Santana” P.R. ploy. Santiago Charter (Middle) School in Orange even uses the "Santanas" -- represented as a tornado-like whirlwind -- as their mascot. 
Firefighters clear brush as the wind-driven Green River Fire (1948) bears down on a Silverado Canyon church.
Other attempts at obfuscating the source of winds' name have also been attempted, with less success. 

A 1958 article for Westways magazine, recalled that "another person held that the natives had known the wind as 'The Wind of the Evil Spirits,' because of its dryng effect on leaves, berries and nuts. Mission fathers equated 'evil spirits' with Satan and labeled the wind 'Satan's Wind.'" 

There was zero evidence for this theory, and nobody went for it.
Nellie Goff in the ruins of her wind-ravaged house, circa 1950s.
Yet another posited that the name had been given by the Portola Expedition of 1769. This was also dead wrong. The expedition was well-documented and there is no such mention in their journals of noteworthy winds. This tall tale did, however, tangentially brush against one element of truth: The priests in the expedition had named the Santa Ana Mountains while camped on St. Anne's feast day, and the expedition's soldiers had had later named the Santa Ana River for the mountains from which they thought it originated. Later, Santa Ana Canyon was named for the river, and eventually the winds were named for the canyon through which they frequently blew.

For thousands or maybe millions of years, the Santa Anas have blown violently a few times a year – primarily between October and March. But if it seems like the winds have become more frequent (albeit a bit less violent) in recent years, you may be onto something. Some scientists believe that climate change is not only expanding the Santa Ana wind “season,” but is also producing drier winds. Santa Ana conditions seem to be rapidly becoming the new normal.  If this keeps up, we may all have to move “back east” where the weather’s better.
Damage to oil derrick from Santa Ana winds (Courtesy Santa Ana Public Library)

[Parts of this article were drawn from several earlier articles by the author, which appeared in Orange Coast magazine, the OCHS’ County Courier, and the O.C. History Roundup blog. The article also appeared in a somewhat similar combined form later in the March 2018 County Connection newsletter.]


Chris Jepsen said...

My thanks to Jorge Spahn for pointing out an error (a misattributed quote), which has now been corrected. Thanks also to Eric "Mr. Early California" Plunkett for contributing a couple significant early citations.

Chris Jepsen said...

The full quote from Dana was from Feb. 13, 1836, "We were called up at midnight to slip for a violent northeaster, for this miserable hole of San Pedro is thought unsafe in almost every wind." The Pligrim the sailed out to the lee side of Catalina for a few days to wait out the winds.

Chris Jepsen said...

In his article, "Ranging on the Mojave River in 1864," published in the March 1930 edition of Touring Topics magazine, J. E. Pleasants recalls the rancheros' hopes of rain being dashed during the drought year of 1863, when "the so-called 'Santa Ana' wind would set in and scatter every cloud on the horizon. This wind would blow for days, parching the already dry ground and shattering the hopes of the stock men."

It's unclear however, whether Pleasants is indicating that the winds were already known as "Santa Ana" winds in 1863, or whether he's simply describing them and using a term coined later.