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El Diablo Returns: The Santa Ana Winds Storm Into Southern California

The Santa Anas are back.  Every autumn, around the same time as the swallows leave Capistrano, the Santa Ana winds storm into town — invading southern California over the mountain passes and through the coastal canyons.  Santa Ana winds are largely a Southern Californian phenomenon.  They occur as far north as Santa Barbara (where they are called sundowners) and sometimes as far south as Baja Mexico.

Santa Anas typically begin in October and can last until March, although they are most often associated with the autumn because that also corresponds with Southern California’s dry fire season.  Indeed, the Santa Anas are often connected with some of Southern California’s worst wild fires.  Santa Ana winds blow at least 40 miles per hour, but gusts can greatly exceed that amount.  This weekend, gusts as high as 90 miles per hour were reported in Ventura County.  The Los Angeles Times reported that this weekend’s Santa Anas posed the “highest wildfire threat … seen in years.”

One fire began about 3:30 p.m. Friday in Oxnard, where authorities responded to a structure blaze on South Oxnard Boulevard. No injuries were reported, said Oxnard Police Department Watch Cmdr. Marty Meyers.  About 90 minutes later, a second fire broke out in brush along Santiago Creek in the city of Orange. The fire jumped the creek and moved toward the Lake Condos development before an air attack put it out, officials said.

What exactly are the Santa Anas?  According to the meteorological web site at UC San Diego:

The Santa Ana is a dry, sometimes hot and dusty, wind in southwestern California that blows westward through the canyons toward the coastal areas. The wind usually has its origin when cold air spills southward into the Great Basin, trapped between the Rockies to the east and the Sierras and Southern California coastal range to the west. Winds are driven into Southern California when the pressure of this interior air mass exceeds the pressure along the California coast. Winds are often strongest in mountain passes which are ducts for the continental air flow. Because the air over the higher elevations of the Great Basin sinks as it flows into coastal California, it is heated adiabatically, and temperatures are often quite warm. This continental air mass is invariably dry, so humidities in Santa Anas are low.

Below is an image that illustrates the flow of the Santa Anas from the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert, southwest through the Southern Californian mountain ranges and west towards the coast:

Image credit: NASA (via UCSD)

The Santa Ana winds have been scientifically reported since the 1800s, but have been described anecdotally far longer.  Local lore suggests that the arrival of the Santa Anas causes behavioral changes in the population — an extended witching hour, in a way.  As a result, the winds have picked up some colorful nicknames.  Due to the heat of the Santa Anas, they are sometimes called “devil’s breath,” the “devil’s wind” or merely “el diablo.”  It is believed that the winds take their proper name from Orange County’s Santa Ana Canyon — an area where the winds are known to blow the fiercest.  Regardless, the Santa Ana winds are infamous in Southern California history and have made their share of appearances in Southern California popular culture.  For example, Raymond Chandler used the Santa Anas to set the mood in his novel Red Wind:

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. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

El Diablo indeed.

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