“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.”
—Raymond Chandler, “Red Wind”
With back-to-back Red Flag alerts , multiple deadly wildfires already burning in the state, and the specter of the Getty Fire looming over Topanga and the eastern Santa Monica Mountains, Chandler’s desert wind is doing more than making nerves jump; it’s inducing panic.
Winds like the Santa Anas have a special Greek name: Katabatic, which means to drain, or flow, downhill. In the Alps this wind is called the Foehn; in Provence, the Mistral; in Canada, the Chinook; in Alaska, the Williwaw; in Argentina, the Zonda; and in Japan, the Oroshi. While the Santa Ana can reach speeds in excess of 70 mph; the Williwaw has been clocked at over 140 mph.
Most of the winds of this type begin as cold air in an area of high pressure. As the cold air travels around the high pressure system (clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere; counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere), it gains speed and is squeezed into the surrounding lo- pressure areas. The wind is heated through compression and gains speed as it pours through mountain canyons, like water down a drain.
For the Santa Ana winds to occur, the air in the Great Basin east of the Sierras has to be colder than the air at the coast. Trapped between the mountain ranges, that cold air mass begins to build pressure. The winds are generated as the high pressure surges out into the areas of low pressure along the coast.
In the Santa Monica Mountains, the east-west, or transverse, orientation of the mountains creates perfect conditions for the canyons to channel the winds, intensifying the speed and the temperature of the wind, and increasing fire danger. The wind flows like water through canyons and passes toward the ocean, heating up as the air compresses.
According to the California Climate Change Center, “This continental air mass is invariably dry, so humidities in Santa Anas are low, often less than 25 percent relative humidity.”
A 2013 NOAA study found that the winds have “an accomplice” that contributes to the wildfires: atmospheric events known as stratospheric intrusions, which bring extremely dry air from the upper atmosphere down to the surface.
Humidity levels, especially in plants and the soil, is the major determining factor on whether the winds will fuel a wildfire. The low humidity, combined with the heat are responsible for the elevated fire risk during a Santa Ana wind storm. With sustained wind speeds of 40-70 miles, and gusts as high as 120 mph, it’s easy to see why the phenomenon is sometimes called the Devil’s Breath, or the Devil’s Wind. Santa Ana winds have driven all 17 of the most destructive fires in the Santa Monica Mountains from 1930 to 2019.
Mike Davis, the author of the controversial 1998 book Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, described Malibu as “The wildfire capital of North America,” and pointed out that “The rugged 22-mile-long coastline is scoured, on the average, by a large fire (one thousand acres plus) every two and a half years, and the entire surface area of the western Santa Monica Mountains has been burnt three times over [the 20th] century.”
The Santa Anas go by a lot of names. Some people meld the syllables together to make the name Santana, others call these fierce desert winds the red wind, the devil’s breath, or the devil’s wind, but the winds apparently get their name from Santa Ana Canyon, in Orange County, where the phenomenon was reportedly once thought to originate.
It’s unclear if the name was bestowed by Spanish settlers or later arrivals. However, the theories that the name derives from Satan or from a Native American word meaning “evil wind” seem to be entirely urban legends. It seems equally unlikely that the name comes directly from the saint, since her feast day is celebrated in July, a time of year when Santa Ana winds are least likely to occur. And the tempestuous Mexican military leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who is also sometimes credited for the name, also seems an unlikely source for the name, since he never visited California.
The Chumash must have been very familiar with the winds, but their names for the phenomenon have not survived, although the name “Simi” derives from a Chumash term for the little white clouds that often accompany the wind.
Robert Fovell, a professor at UCLA in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, has examined the Los Angeles Times archive in search of the etymology of the name, but found nothing more exotic than the place name.
According to Fovell, the earliest reference to the Santa Anas in the Times dates to 1881, just one year after the newspaper began publication.
One of the items Fovell found in the Times archive is a letter to the editor complaining about the name and its connection to the community of Santa Ana. He writes:
In 1893, the Times published a complaint from an Orange County resident concerning “the misnaming of the winds which blow at times over almost all portions of Southern California, and which, unfortunately, in some sections of the southern portion of the State are erroneously called Santa Ana winds.”
“These winds are ‘an exceedingly unpleasant feature, especially in the fall before the rains have laid the dust.’ The writer recognizes that the winds ‘take the name of Santa Ana by reason of their passage through the Santa Ana Mountain canyon, which is shaped very much like a large funnel’ but insists it is ‘not a Santa Ana wind any more than it is a Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside or San Diego wind.’”
In many parts of the world, this type of wind is thought to cause madness and illness. In Germany they even have a special word for it: Föhnkrankheit. In California, madness isn’t nearly as much of a worry as fire, the devil wind really does bring a host of lesser ills: migraines, allergies, and nosebleeds, among them.
When the fire threat isn’t imminent, the phenomenon isn’t all bad. When the winds drop we are left with the illusion of summer: bright sun and vivid blue sky and sea. Unexpected vistas are revealed: the Los Angeles skyline emerges from the haze and smog; the Channel Islands appear like the lost lands of legend out to sea. At night, the Milky Way is visible, while Orion, his faithful hound at his heels, strides across a brilliant field of stars, once the red glow of sunset has faded.
Like Chandler, novelist Joan Didion, a Malibu resident in the 1970s, wrote a memorable description of the winds in her book Slouching to Bethlehem:
“The violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”