Mesa Musings: Oh, those Santa Anas

"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…." —

Raymond Chandler, "Red Wind" (1938)

It's that special time of year again.

I refer not to reindeer, mistletoe and Advent wreaths but to a dreaded season. I speak of lip balm, static cling and dry itchy eyes.

December in Southern California means we're in the midst of the "devil winds" season! If the Santa Anas aren't blowing at this very moment, have patience. They soon will be.

I've lived my entire life here and have hated Santa Anas for as long as I can remember. "Santanas," as we called them when I was a kid, are the bane of the Southern California resident.

The winds wreak havoc with hairdos and skirts; blow dust, grit, soot and pollen into weary faces; inhibit walking and running; sometimes blow bicyclists rump-over-tea-kettle; and make some feel as if they have a large furball lodged in their throat. With regularity they push over fences, knock down trees and power lines, and blow off roofs.

The fence at my childhood residence routinely blew down during Santa Ana season.

These devil winds assault us between October and March, and harass us on numerous occasions during a single season.

I remember growing up in Costa Mesa and seeing dozens of tumbleweeds at a time cart wheeling through my neighborhood. You'd encounter tumbleweeds on main thoroughfares, like Newport and Harbor boulevards. Chain-link fences were bedecked with them.

During Santa Ana seasons in the 1950s and '60s there seemed nary a vehicle in town that didn't have a tumbleweed affixed to its front grille.

Santa Anas are generally northeasterly winds that run their course in a few days. The blustery, dry and usually warm (sometimes hot) offshore winds are called Santa Anas because they blow down Santa Ana Canyon and plague Orange County and several of its sister counties (though the winds rarely make it north of Santa Barbara). Gusts can reach hurricane velocity as the winds funnel down valleys and canyons.

High-pressure that builds over the high plateau regions of Nevada and Utah spawn Santa Anas. The winds move down slope toward lower pressure that hovers over the Pacific, and the air heats due to compression. Relative humidity drops as the air is squeezed through passes and canyons.

Typically, the winds blow hot and dry and can account for the very hot weather we encounter during fall and winter months. Mild Santa Anas in fall can boost temperatures well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

The winds occasionally blow cold and dry and account for some of our chilliest winter weather.

As the winds rage, chaparral dries out and is turned into combustible fuel that feeds highly destructive wildfires. Once fires begin, winds fan the flames and the infernos can last for weeks.

Some people have associated the winds with earthquakes and homicides. I remember as a kid my mom would say, as the winds blew, "This is earthquake weather."

I've lived through lots and lots of earthquakes, but can't recall a single one occurring during a Santa Ana — though I could be wrong.

This I do know: Everybody develops an irritable streak during a Santa Ana. And everyone is jumpy. Literally! Static electricity is unleashed as people shake hands, embrace and grasp doorknobs.

Of the more than 60 Christmases I've spent in Newport-Mesa, I'd wager nearly a quarter of them have featured Santa Ana winds. How quaint to see the crèche that once sat on your front lawn plastered against the garage of the house at the end of the cul-de-sac.

Rose petals on the famous Pasadena floats have been wilted by the winds, and strong gusts have shut down the Newport Beach Boat Parade for an evening.

It's been said that the winds blow strongest and loudest at night. I've reclined in bed and the wind has whistled so loudly though the eaves and around the corners of my house that I've been unable to sleep. At dawn, things seem to calm down significantly, but they pick up again as the day progresses.

I suppose it would be healthy for me to grow to accept this distinctive Southern California weather phenomenon — but I can't.

I hate you, devil winds!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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