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The Santa Ana winds: A cultural and destructive force in Southern California




In this image made from a video provided by KABC-TV, a fire burns in the Anaheim Hills area of Anaheim in northern Orange County on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.
In this image made from a video provided by KABC-TV, a fire burns in the Anaheim Hills area of Anaheim in northern Orange County on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.
KABC-TV via AP

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Fires have been raging throughout California all week, including in Orange County.

The Canyon Fire 2 in Anaheim Hills is expected to be contained by the weekend. But since igniting on Monday, it has burned thousands of acres and destroyed 25 structures, many of them homes.

The reason it spread so fast? The wind. Specifically, the Santa Anas.

Santa Ana winds blowing through the Southern California mountains have weakened significantly and most warnings of extreme fire danger have been cancelled.
Santa Ana winds blowing through the Southern California mountains have weakened significantly and most warnings of extreme fire danger have been cancelled.
Erik/Flickr

 

The Santa Ana winds are a consistent part of life in Southern California, but not just from the weather report. They are a part of local culture.

They've been referenced in everything from Raymond Chandler’s detective novels to the CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

 

 

 

From the CW's Crazy Ex Girlfriend
From the CW's Crazy Ex Girlfriend

“There are all kinds of references," said Alex Hall, professor of atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UCLA. "It's kind of amazing, the extent to which these winds have entered into pop culture and movies.” 

According to Hall, the Santa Anas are a kind of phenomenon that only happens in this part of the country.

"They're these very strong, hot winds that start to blow right around October," Hall said. "They can kick up really big fires and that creates kind of an apocalyptic atmosphere here in Los Angeles."

It turns out that this, "apocalyptic atmosphere," has some science behind it.

“They are formed when there happens to be a high-pressure system sitting over this big desert that's in the interior of the Western U.S.," Hall said. "It flows through all the mountain passes that separate the coastal plains here in Los Angeles under the desert. That air is flown through those passages. That produces pretty high wind."

The danger comes into play when those high-speed winds come in contact with an ignition event - a fallen match or power line; a bike pedal or boat chain striking a rock just so. That's all it takes to spark a fire.

"The Santa Ana winds are a big reason why right around now tends to be a peak fire season around California," Hall said.

But Hall thinks that the winds aren’t all bad. During a Southern California winter, it's normal for warm breezes to flow through, even as it gets colder. Angelenos have the Santa Ana's to thank for that too.

"That’s what people don't quite focus on. They think about when they happen in October, but they’re going on all the time," Hall said.

As we approach October’s mid-point, Hall says the Santa Ana’s are a force both scientific and cultural that are unfortunately deadly.

"It's a very different experience when they're kicking up fire in October and they're producing a lot of smoke and people are in danger," Hall said. "Throughout the rest of the season, it's just really beautiful Los Angeles Wintertime weather.  I think most people just don't think of them as the same thing but they really are."

To hear more about the Santa Ana winds and examples of them in literature click the blue players above.