Sunday, October 21, 2007

Do those winds really originate in Santa Ana? I think not.

It's October, and Southern California is on fire again.

It doesn't happen every year, but when the east wind blows, often the fires are not far behind.

Sometimes, the fires start when the winds get strong enough to knock down power lines. And sometimes the wind brings out all the idiots with a fire fixation. But whatever the cause, for those of us who grew up in Southern California, fall is fire season. That is just a fact of life in SoCal, just like earthquakes and film shoots. And, honestly, the fires are a natural and healthy part of the region's ecology.

Of course, the fires are regarded with fear and loathing. Through the years they have caused untold damage and not a little loss of life. And often the wind gets the blame, even when it doesn't cause the fires but only spreads them once they've begun.

This makes me sad, because I have always loved wind in general, and the Santa Ana Wind, as it is officially called in SoCal specifically. Wikipedia has a little bit to say about this regional phenomenon here. I've never really liked that name for the wind, though. When I was growing up in Simi Valley, we just called it the east wind.

Yes, in one way I associate the east wind with fires, just like everyone else. I can remember my father spending the night on the roof of my grandmother's house (the house I lived in the first six years of my life) fighting the wind from knocking him off and wetting the roof down with the garden hose so that flying embers wouldn't set the wood building aflame. I can remember our small valley being completely cut off from the outside world, the sky above completely clouded over with smoke. Those were frightening times.

And the fires were not the only trouble the winds would cause. Legend has it that teachers in SoCal don't even try to get their classes to do anything when the east wind is blowing, because it makes their students hyper to the point of mania. Well, it wasn't quite that bad in reality, but I know the wind had an effect on me.

It was sort of a natural high for me, when the east wind was blowing. It made me feel energized, like I could do anything. Being out in it, hair whipping in the 50, 60, 70, 80 mile per hour winds, where sometimes it was almost impossible to walk against the wind, was exhilarating.

One bit of the Wikipedia article linked above that struck me was this:

A Santa Ana fog is derivative phenomenon in which a ground fog settles in Southern California during the end of a Santa Ana wind episode. When Santa Ana conditions prevail, with winds in the lower two to three kilometers (1.25-1.8 m) of the atmosphere from the north through east, the lower atmosphere continues to be dry. But as soon as the Santa Ana winds cease, the cool and moist marine layer forms rapidly. The air in the marine layer becomes very moist and fog occurs.
It can work the other way, as well. I remember when I was about five years old, not long before Christmas, I was scheduled to be in a holiday pageant at church. But when it came time to go to the church for the pageant, it was so foggy out that you could barely see your hand in front of your face. But, in the best show-must-go-on tradition, my mother and father and I set out for the church anyway. We found the driveway to my grandmother's house when we stopped by to pick her up but my father left the car on the side of the road and walked down her long driveway to get her rather than pulling into the driveway because he was afraid he would drive off into the walnut orchard trying to back out again.

We made it to the church, maybe three or four miles away, without incident, but as we started to go inside the fog was still thick. My father looked up, laughed, and remarked that it would be funny if it was clear by the end of the show. Everyone laughed and sort of said the early-1960s version of "Yeah, right," and we went inside. The show went well, I suppose. I don't remember too much about it. I was five years old, after all. But I clearly remember emerging from the church building an hour or hour and half later to the east wind blowing and a crystal clear sky strewn with stars that looked so close that you could touch them. We just all looked at my father like he must have had a crystal ball concealed somewhere on his person.

Where I live now, the wind almost never blows, and when it does it rarely blows very hard. Yesterday we did have wind, not from the east but from the north, not warm but cold, and only up to gusts of about 40 miles per hour (as reported; it didn't seem nearly that much to me). Still, it felt so good to have it. And it made me miss SoCal and the east wind, despite all the trouble it sometimes exacerbates.

So, as I watched the CNN coverage of the fires this morning, I felt bad for those people whose homes were burning or in danger of burning. But there was also a part of me that was very homesick for my east wind.

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