When desert winds blow

by Gautam Raja

You’ve no doubt seen the news about the terrible fires in Southern California, some of them still burning. The Thomas fire is on its way to destroying 300,000 acres. As you may have read, they have been fuelled by a bad bout of the Santa Ana winds, a Southern California weather phenomenon that isn’t talked about much in the rafts of popular culture set in Los Angeles.

An author famous for alluding to these winds is Raymond Chandler, considered the founder of “hard-boiled” detective fiction. Forgive me if you’re a reader from Los Angeles where it is quite the cliché to remember Chandler when the desert winds blow. If you’re not, look up the opening lines of his story “Red Wind”. They sum up the dusty edginess of those evenings when the gusts over the mountains suddenly raise the temperature of cold evenings, and drop the humidity to the low teens, and even single digits. My favourite part is: “Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

I’ve noticed that I often feel feverish when the winds are blowing, and read recently they are known to carry a spore that causes flu-like symptoms in about 40 per cent of the population. Even if you don’t feel ill, humidity that low is exceedingly uncomfortable. It’s hard to breathe, hard to sleep, and your skin turns ashy. The other evening, I rode my bike to the grocery store during a Santa Ana event. I usually wear gloves, but didn’t that day. After an hour of riding, my knuckles and the tops of my hands got so dry, the skin became rough and itchy for several days after.

It’s because of the Santa Anas, the gusts of which can exceed 120 km/h, that people spend a lot of money trimming their trees every couple of years, opening up dense canopies to let the wind pass through easily. A few days after spending a small fortune on trimming our largest trees, I found a large yellow mushroom on the trunk of an old eucalyptus tree on the edge of our property. It was both the size and shape of a human brain. Apparently it was a sign of wood rot, and the tree had to come down. A few weeks later, I found another large mushroom (the size and shape of a large hand fan) at the base of a eucalyptus that towered over our house. To our dismay, we needed to cut down this century old giant, one that would smash our house and land right on our bed, should it fall over.

The tree trimmer was about 80 feet up the tree the first day of the three-day process of removal, and was figuring out how to loop a rope around a large branch, when the Santa Anas hit. The evening went nearly instantly from not a leaf moving to the wind hissing violently through the nearby palm trees. He had to literally hold on for dear life, and then descend quickly between gusts, as the winds picked up again for the evening. “I feared for my life,” he said in Spanish after he was finally off the tree.

The Santa Anas don’t blow through very often in the year, but when they do, their effects are often terrifying. Considering that everything about LA is dramatised and iconified—from its roads and freeways to its palm trees to its proximity to an earthquake fault—I’m amazed there isn’t a TV drama or movie set during a Santa Ana event, especially as they’re colloquially known as the Devil Winds.

First published in Gulf News, December 19, 2017