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October 23, 2007

Santa Ana Winds

Joan Didion said that "it is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination....Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability."

I'm with Kevin. That sounds absurd to me. Aside from the times when the Santa Ana winds help spread raging fires, they're just wind. They occasionally gave my father migraines. They impinged on my life little beyond that. And nor is the weather in Southern California "the weather of catastrophe." It's generally the weather of beach going. I often say that I never understood what people meant with the cliche of "discussing the weather" until I moved to DC, as in Los Angeles, there was nothing to discuss. How would that conversation even go?

"It was 76 yesterday, it's 76 today, it'll be 76 tomorrow," I'd say, gazing out towards the pavement, and the SUVs. "Yep," my straw-chewing friend would grunt from his porch, where he was sunning himself on a yoga mat.

October 23, 2007 | Permalink


“Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe”

Los Angeles weather reporting, on those rare occasions when they actually have inclement weather, is about catastrophe, like the annual Storm Watch to cover their 10 days of rain per year.

Posted by: DM | Oct 23, 2007 1:04:27 PM

I wouldn't say it's absurd. It's a little affecting, for example, for the sun to look like it's in a perma-sunset because of all the crap in the air. The air smells like smoke. Health officals are urging people to stay indoors. And the traffic today was the worst I've seen since I've been in LA.

Weird weather makes people weird. It's not unreasonable.

I've got more on this at my joint, in case people are interested.

Posted by: ethan salto | Oct 23, 2007 1:14:25 PM

I wouldn't say it's absurd. It's a little affecting, for example, for the sun to look like it's in a perma-sunset because of all the crap in the air. The air smells like smoke. Health officals are urging people to stay indoors. And the traffic today was the worst I've seen since I've been in LA.

Weird weather makes people weird. It's not unreasonable.

I've got more on this at my joint, in case people are interested.

Posted by: ethan salto | Oct 23, 2007 1:14:59 PM

the stirring santa anas that bring to life these immense firestorms, do accentuate impermanence.
but for me, in a different way.
....this morning, where i live the air is unbreathably smoky...there is ashen dust on everything.
the winds have quieted down.
the santa anas and the firestorms work in concert to bring new growth to the high deserts and arid regions of southern california.
....the seeds and spores crack in the intense fiery heat, much like hatching eggs.
they release their seeds, that scatter in the winds...and with a little rain, bring carpets of wildflowers and new life to scorched fields.
..........but instead, once again, we are at cross-purposes with nature. every cliff, every hill at ever-increasing altitudes now has tract communities on the edges of wild and beautiful brush.
communities of mediterranean homes or cookie-cutter craftsman cottages with giant suvs parked outside, where desert willows and manzanitas used to sing in the wind.
no more.
but when mother nature whips winds and fires to create new life, we call it a "cruel twist of nature".
only ONE LIFE was directly lost in these engulfing firestorms.
nature has been very kind, and licked the doors of the houses.
each time, she is trying to reclaim her land, as we are moving into areas that are deeply inhospitable to human habitation.
but perhaps there will still be nothing learned.
and land that was the home of mountain lions and coyote, will once again be covered with grassy soccer fields and million dollar houses on the hilltops, once beautiful, but now balded and naked for "fire management".
and may G-d protect the confused mountain lion that mistakenly finds herself in someone's bed of impatiens, near the gas barbeque.
mountain lion, your land is all but gone.
........perhaps seeing these colossal storms and planning out the next decade, hovnanian, and the other master community developers will redouble their efforts in washington and oregon.
i believe we have only begun to see the rape of the northwest by real estate developers.
and in alaska, where it is already happening.
....brand new tract houses all the way up to fairbanks.
"come live the dream in the land of natural wonders and ancient inuit lore".....

i think one day, nature will reclaim it again.
we here in california, with flames licking at all of our doors today, should heed the warning.

and yes, california does have weather.

Posted by: jacqueline | Oct 23, 2007 1:24:53 PM

You guys are clueless. The Santa Ana winds are not driving fires. Oklahoma has much higher winds than SoCal does and yet suffers none of the recurring fires that SoCal has.

The reason why SoCal burns so often is because of the vegetation, not the winds. Chaparral is designed by nature to burn often. Its an evolutionary design to release nutrients back into the poor soil every few years. If you took away the chaparral then these fires wouldnt exist.

SoCal fires are as inevitable as floods along below-zero elevation river banks. If you want to build your million dollar mansion in such a precarious area, then you can pay for it yourself when it goes up in smoke.

I'm sure everybody wants a multibillion dollar govt bailout to help these guys with their 2.5 million dollar homes get another one. What a freakin joke.

Posted by: joe blow | Oct 23, 2007 1:33:08 PM

There's a famous Raymond Chandler quote about the Santa Anas, too.

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. (from "Red Wind")

I wonder if Didion remembers and Chandler was describing the world before air conditioning.

Posted by: dm | Oct 23, 2007 1:46:20 PM

"the santa ana winds are not driving the fires"

joe blow..
that is simply not true.
the winds spread the fires.
that is why the fires randomly hopscotch everywhere.
our droughts have created scorched vegetation,
and when a fire begins, particularly with fierce santa anas in the mountains, this is what happens.
.......if you dont think that is true, just come and visit us out here today.
our fires are always severely intensified by santa anas.

and my whole post was about real estate developers not disrupting those areas which are cyclically ravaged by firestorms.

Posted by: jacqueline | Oct 23, 2007 1:47:40 PM

You would never make it as a novelist. That? Hmph. Just wind.

Posted by: ostap | Oct 23, 2007 1:51:43 PM

76? The forcast high today is 94.

Posted by: Bloix | Oct 23, 2007 1:52:44 PM

Joan's writing poetry there, Ezra. If you read it from the standpoint of your "wonk" mind, you won't get it.

I know exactly what she's talking about.

Posted by: Garuda | Oct 23, 2007 2:01:08 PM

"Why can't Herman Melville just describe the damn whale and shut up?" -- Ezra Klein.

Posted by: Garuda | Oct 23, 2007 2:02:40 PM

"I'm sure everybody wants a multibillion dollar govt bailout to help these guys with their 2.5 million dollar homes get another one. What a freakin joke."

Cripes, joe blow, you had a perfectly interesting comment about the chaparral's role in the fires, but then you had to come up with this idiocy? Where, exactly, did you get the idea for the conclusion I quote above? Not here, since you don't actually quote anybody. And it seems a stretch to claim, as you seem to, that the winds have nothing to do with the fires. Try to be a little less angry and a little more reality-based, please.

By the way, John McPhee's book, Control of Nature, gives a wonderful account of the ecological precariousness of Southern California, Los Angeles in particular.

Posted by: Dcounsel | Oct 23, 2007 2:16:10 PM

Oh, and if the Santa Ana's are anything like the Mistral in Southern France, I'm with Didion.

Posted by: Dcounsel | Oct 23, 2007 2:18:25 PM

Garuda, resorting to poetry is only acceptable when it results in a more accurate portrayal of life. What Ezra is taking issue with is that Didion is (awkwardly and excessively) using purple prose to describe Los Angeles in a way that has no bearing on reality (at least in a post-air-conditioning world).

I do detest purple prose on principle, however. Mostly because hardly anyone is good at it, but far more people think they are good at it.

Posted by: Tyro | Oct 23, 2007 2:28:56 PM

In my four years of LA, I found that a lot of people discussed the weather. Or, more accurately, they discussed the climate as a (sometimes the only) justification for living there. So many damn times people would ask me how I liked moving to LA and ask if I didn't just love the weather. It seemed like most of them didn't really know what else to praise about the place other than the sunshine. Maybe this was from living around UCLA, where it is genuinely temperate all year round, even when the Valley or parts East were sweltering.

It didn't take long for me to start answering these incessant questions by pointing out that I kind of hate constant sunlight, and would be a lot happier somewhere with rain. And now, in Portland, where people also constantly ask you how you're dealing with the weather, I freak them out by saying "It's perfect."

Posted by: ryan | Oct 23, 2007 2:53:01 PM

You haven't lived in the Inland Empire. I've spent time in Costa Mesa, etc but unless you've lived in San Bernardino, Riverside or even Yorba Linda (where the winds are gusting past 90 mph) you don't understand the real force of the Santa Ana winds. Kevin's in Irvine so it's not the same. I've seen the winds pick up a person in San Bernardino and in Yorba Linda they're pulling out trees out of the yards of friends. When you have real Santa Ana winds life moves just a bit slower, when it's really bad you'll skip classes and watch TV.

Posted by: Kombiz | Oct 23, 2007 2:53:07 PM

"Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is every healthy robust boy with a healthy robust soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to the sea? Why upon your first voyage as passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life. And that is the key to it all."
-- Herman Melville.

"There's a bunch of water over there." -- Ezra Klein.

Posted by: Garuda | Oct 23, 2007 2:53:38 PM

those were funny posts, garuda!!!

Posted by: jacqueline | Oct 23, 2007 2:57:37 PM

I think Joan Didion is a typical literary type making a mountain out of a molehill. (This is the woman who wrote a whole book about the fact that she lived with a husband with a terminal illness, as if that hasn't happened to anyone else.)

The truth is, most of us in California ignore the winds and the fires. That's right, we are so self-centered that if we don't live in an affected area or have relatives there, it's just something to watch on the evening news.

Posted by: Dilan Esper | Oct 23, 2007 3:11:03 PM

Kombiz is right. As a kid, I remember struggling against the wind trying to walk from one end of the playground into class. As a college student in Claremont, I would ride my bicycle east-west during the santa anas because north was just impossible with winds of 60 - 100mph blowing through the passes.

Ezra, give up the TV, Internet, and A/C in your home and car and enjoy the 80-90 degree weather in the inland empire with the hot santa anas. Better yet, get rid of your new car, stereo, and iPod, and drive through traffic in a car circa 1940 - Chandler, or 1960 - Didion.

Posted by: jerry | Oct 23, 2007 3:34:26 PM

Move to Chicago or Minneapolis and you'll definitely discuss the weather.

Posted by: lee | Oct 23, 2007 3:35:33 PM

No, she didn't write "a whole book about the fact that she lived with a husband with a terminal illness." She wrote a book about recovering from the fact that, while they were waiting for their newlywed daughter to recover from life-threatening septic shock, her husband dropped dead, quite suddenly. "The Year of Magical Thinking" is about grieving, and it's magnificent.

It won the National Book Award in November 2005 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography.

Posted by: Susie from Philly | Oct 23, 2007 3:42:19 PM

I think Joan Didion is right. But maybe I'm biased because I was in Berkeley for the big fire in 1991. The winds (I'm not sure you'd call them Santa Anas that far north) were blowing so strong from the east, there were smoke clouds over Candlestick park.

It was funny to see the smoke clouds on tv (I was watching a Niners game) at the same time as fires were raging just a few miles away. Seeing it on tv made it seem much more grave than seeing the smoke clouds outside my apartment. I know that sounds like a character in a Don DeLillo novel might say.

I don't think anyone who has lived through a big California fire like that can feel the winds from the east and not think of catastrophe.

So for me, Joan Didion's right.

Posted by: Exile on Ericsson St. | Oct 23, 2007 3:48:23 PM

I read a novel not too long ago about how the Santa Anas get into people's heads and make them crazy. I'm too lazy to look it up right now, but the narrator's mother killed her boyfriend, the narrator went into foster care, etc. Pretty good book, actually.

I grew up in Western Nebraska, where the winds come roaring down the Rockies and clear everything out. Twenty miles an hour is a calm day! So even the Santa Anas aren't bad for me (although I'm turning into a SoCal weather pansy). I guess we didn't have too much standing in the way to burn, though, just grass. I kind of enjoy the Santa Anas (barring the fire, of course) because it's something, rather than just the sameness every day. And it reminds me of home.

The wind does work well as a metaphor, though, like the vast prairies, the deep New England winters, or the dreary Northwest rain. But I'm not the creative sort to develop those metaphors.

Posted by: carrar | Oct 23, 2007 3:52:56 PM

Deja Vu All Over Again, all over again.

"Once again, politicians and the media have allowed the esstential landuse issue--the rampant, uncontrolled proliferation of firebelt suburbs--to be camoflaged in a neutral discourse about natural hazards and public safety. But "safety" for the Mailbu and Laguna coasts as well as hundreds of other luxury enclaves and gated hilltop suburbs is becoming one of the state's major social expenditures, although--unlike welfare or immigration--it is almost never debated in terms of trade-offs or alternatives. The $100 million cost of mobilizing 15,000 firefighters during Halloween week 1993 may be an increasingly common entry in the public ledger. Needless to say, there is no comparable investment in the fire, toxic, or earthquake safety of inner-city communities. Instead, as in so many things, we tolerate two systems of hazard protection, separate and unequal." (Mike Davis, "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn")

Wake me up when October ends.

Posted by: Potato Head | Oct 23, 2007 4:00:32 PM

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