Santa Ana wind advisory blows through Malibu

Photo archive. Julie Ellerton/TMT.

Malibu escapes major damage…this time

Perhaps no one described the devilish Santa Ana winds better than the hard-boiled detective novelist Raymond Chandler. “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 husband’s necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

That tightly wound passage is from the great writer’s early pulpier work from the 1930’s “Red Wind: A Collection of Short Stories.” Chandler ably captures the menacing heat of the dry winds that can quickly turn an otherwise mild-mannered person on edge: the Santa Anas wreak havoc not only with their uncanny power to ignite a firestorm through Southern California terrain but also to jangle one’s nerves so badly because the Santa Anas never blow good news our way.

The late great writer Joan Didion built on Chandler’s descriptive take on the destructive weather phenomenon in her essay “The Santa Anas.” While living in Malibu, Didion wrote about the tension that builds when the winds whip up, “drying the hills and the nerves to a flashpoint. The baby frets. The maid sulks.” She adds, “For a few days now, we will see smoke back in the canyons and hear sirens in the night.”

While we may not all have maids, those of us living in Malibu have all felt that wind-whipped nervous tension. The Santa Anas have not been kind to Malibu. A major conflagration hits our area every decade, and experts have warned us that trend will continue if not grow worse. Of course, Malibu is still reeling from our latest catastrophe exacerbated by Santa Ana conditions – 2018’s Woolsey Fire. First, an exasperating evacuation that clogged Pacific Coast Highway as panicked residents fled the approaching disaster, and then the aftermath: three dead, 480 homes lost in Malibu proper—20 percent of its housing stock—and hundreds left homeless, with only 69 of those homes rebuilt more than three years later.

These winds are most common during the cooler months of the year, occurring from September through May, although they can happen any time of the year. Santa Ana winds typically feel warm and can even feel hot as the cool desert air moves down the sides of mountains, canyons, and passes. The Santa Anas are typically strongest through canyons and passes due to the funnel or bellows effect the topography creates. Meteorologist Mike Wofford, based in Oxnard, recently compared the winds to “pushing on a balloon. It just causes the wind to accelerate through a mountain pass.” The wind’s compression through a pass also causes the temperature of the air to rise. That, coupled with lower relative humidity it, often brings spells danger for the dry brushlands surrounding Malibu. It’s like blowtorching dry terrain, and that’s what makes them so calamitous.

The latest round of Santa Anas late in January were unsettling, to say the least, coming on the heels of Woolsey, but for the most part, Malibu was spared major damage. Still, we know they’ll be back. As Joan Didion wrote in 1969 in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “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. The winds show us how close to the edge we are.”