Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Santa Ana Winds still blow

Detail, 1936 Orange County historical map by Gladyce Ashby and Fred Groos for WPA
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 “Los Angeles Is Burning,” all the way back to Richard Henry Dana’s description of an 1835 visit marred by “hellish winds that scourge this land from the north-east.” 

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 April 12, 1873 edition of the Anaheim Gazette. In fact, it was likely the early pioneers of Anaheim who gave the wind its name.
The Santa Ana winds have driven most of Orange County’s worst brushfires, including the terrible Laguna Beach Fire of Oct. 1993.
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.” 

In 1887, the Santa Ana Herald’s editor began promoting the name “Riverside winds” as an alternative.  Historian Jim 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.”

The Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce and local real estate salesmen began complaining about the moniker “Santa Ana winds” as early as 1902. 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.
Firefighters clear brush as the wind-driven Green River Fire (1948) bears down on a Silverado Canyon church.
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)

[Much of this article was 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, and appeared in a similar combined form later in the March 2018 County Connection newsletter.]

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