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The Ill Wind That Blows: Southern California's Santa Ana Phenomenon

IIn October 2007, a series of wildfires burned some 500,000 acres of land and destroyed 1,500 homes across Southern California. The fires stretched from Santa Barbara County to the U.S.–Mexico border, and seven counties were declared disaster areas. As firefighters fought to control the blazes, the fires were helped by unusually hot weather and extreme drought in Southern California. However, one of the biggest and most challenging factors in the fight against the fires was the wind. In the fall of 2007, the annual Santa Ana winds blew stronger and harder than ever, fanning the flames to frightening heights. It is not unusual for the Santa Anas to blow Southern California’s fire season into monstrous proportions. But last year the wind became an even greater factor in one of the biggest fights in the state’s history. And if this summer’s already difficult fire situation is any indication, the 2008 fire season will be another bad one, and you can be sure the Santa Anas will be blowing as strong as ever. 

The lure of California is ingrained in American culture: Pacific sunsets, the promise of prosperity, and mild weather year-round. But this reputation has also been tarnished by reports of earthquakes, landslides, and even the destructive forces of El Niño. The Santa Ana wind has become a legend in its own right, often making headlines only after it has caused a wave of destruction during Southern California’s wildfire season.
The Santa Ana wind is common during the late fall and winter months. A dry, raw northeast wind sweeps into the Los Angeles region, bringing dust and gusty weather. Author Joan Didion called this time “the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.”

The strong offshore winds native to the area near Santa Ana Canyon, south of Los Angeles, were immortalized in literature in the 1836 novel Two Years Before The Mast by Richard Dana. Dana wrote: “On February 13, 1836, we were called up at midnight to slip for a violent northeaster, for this miserable hole of San Pedro is thought unsafe in almost every wind.” The crew had to move the ship southwest of Catalina Island, just off the coast from Los Angeles, to avoid the maelstrom. And during the Mexican War in January 1847, Commodore Robert Stockton, marching through Santa Ana to recapture Los Angeles, reported a strange dust-laden windstorm that arrived while his troops were camped for
the night.

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