The Santa Ana winds don’t just start fires—they’re part of Los Angeles mythology

The Santa Ana winds bring more than fires to southern California
The Santa Ana winds bring more than fires to southern California
Image: AP/Jae C. Hong
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The Santa Ana winds will always remind me of high school. The dry, sandpapery feeling in the back of my throat after early-morning cross-country practices in October. Reading Joan Didion’s essay on the Santa Anas in English class and understanding, for the first time, what it is that writers actually do. Watching the palm trees that line Zuma Beach do improbably strenuous backbends. Dreading the morning when you wake up to notice that the natural light is ever so slightly off. Waiting for a faint smoky smell to confirm your suspicion.

Even this week, sitting an entire continent and ocean away from the destructive wildfires raging through southern California—currently burning in four areas throughout Ventura and Los Angeles counties—I feel edgy. The memory of the winds, and the destruction they often portend, is, for me at least, physical. I text my parents, who live in a canyon above Malibu, for periodic updates, but to a certain extent there’s no need. I can feel it from here.

Los Angeles doesn’t have weather—it has weather events. Winds that cause fires; intense rainfall after long dry periods, which swiftly causes mudslides; long droughts that make something as neighborly as watering the lawn blasphemous; and sanity-testing heatwaves peppered throughout the year. The Santa Ana winds are perhaps the most storied of these, their presence as entwined with the ecological realities of southern California’s land as the region’s cultural mythology itself.

Contrary to the popular assumption—aided by the classic film Chinatown—that Los Angeles is a desert, it’s not. According to the widely used Koppen Climate Classification System, it’s a Mediterranean climate, as is much of the US’s West Coast (and other locations on earth that fall between about 30° and 45° latitude). Moderate temperatures, hot and dry summers, and chaparral vegetation are defining features.

By summer’s end, when the shrubs are dried out and the winds typically arrive, all it takes is an ignition event—something as mundane as an errant cigarette or a campfire left drunkenly unattended—to set the land alight. While forest fires can occur in absence of winds, the large, sprawling and often concurrent fires—fires, unfortunately, beget more fire—that cause mass property damage almost always have these winds as an ingredient.

The hot and dry winds themselves aren’t unique to southern California. October’s destructive fires in Napa Valley were due to a similar phenomenon called the Diablo Winds, though this type of wind-powered fire is less frequent in northern California than in the southern part of the state. They also occur as a foehn wind in Europe and khamsin wind in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

All of these share the same cause: When cold air passes over a mountain range, it turns into a strong, gusty wind as it descends down the leeside of the mountain. The lower and further the wind travels, the hotter and drier it gets. In southern California, the winds originate in the higher elevation Great Basin region and descend to the lower pressure region at the coast (as a rule, air wants to move from high pressure zones to low). As it moves, the air funnels through the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes, and gains near-hurricane levels of speed.

Because ignition events are often caused by people, one could make the argument that the more people there are living amidst these conditions, the more likely fires are. While the density of houses and residential developments do make a difference to how fires spread—and more dramatic seasonal variability thanks to climate change (paywall) is likely to make destructive fire seasons like this year’s more common—the fires themselves are nothing new.

One study from UC Berkeley found that human prevention and mitigation efforts haven’t changed the fact that large, Santa Ana-enabled fires have occurred in Santa Barbara (just north of Ventura County) every couple of decades for nearly 600 years. As the National Parks Service, writing about the Santa Monica mountains, rather glumly put it: “The fact that large fires have continued to occur steadily though different historic periods with very different approaches to fire suppression suggest that the incidence of large fires is primarily determined by fire weather, and that it is substantially unaffected by even our best modern attempts at fire suppression.”

Indeed, whether we like to admit it or not, the Santa Anas—and the fires they bring—are a fact of life in southern California. For that reason, they loom large in the collective local psyche. But perhaps it is because so many writers, filmmakers, musicians, and modern-day content creators have tried their luck in Los Angeles that the Santa Anas have taken on such elevated meaning in popular culture.

Beyond Didion’s seminal essay from her Los Angeles Notebook, there is Raymond Chandler’s piece (pdf) on the winds that “curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.” The Beach Boys, Randy Newman, and Tim Buckley all referenced the winds and their mysterious effects in their lyrics. Even an episode plot line of the musical-comedy TV series Crazy Ex Girlfriend personifies the winds as a camp singing character who “makes things weird.”

Often, these creators blame the winds for that edgy, anxious-by-proxy feeling I’ve had all week. Didion writes: “To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.” A 1988 article from the Los Angeles Times offers a scientific reason: The winds “contain an excess of positive ions,” making us prone to headaches and nausea and prompting the excretion of more serotonin, which causes those edgy feels. While the actual science evaluating the effect these winds have on our psyche and collective nervous systems is shaky, many Angelenos (myself, a lapsed Angeleno, included) take it as a matter of ancient fact. As Didion puts it, “We know it because we feel it.” 

On Thursday, I explained to my mom over FaceTime the supposed chemistry behind why she can’t sleep during Santa Anas. The next day, in London, I woke up to a text message from her: “Winds completely gone all of a sudden at our house. Good news for us,” she wrote, as if speaking of some unspoken, divine intervention. 

I was glad to hear it, but only partially relieved. After all, the winds will come back. They always do.