At Large This Is a Weird Time of Year in Los Angeles
posted by October 14 at 12:06 PMon
The first two weeks of October in Los Angeles—especially in the suburbs an hour north of Los Angeles, where nothing of importance has ever happened—are eerie, cinematic, softly baked, windy, loaded-with-the-faint-possibility-of-something-finally-happening (horror? crisis?) days. When you live there as a kid, you somehow think that faint whiff of horror/crisis/possibility is related to Halloween coming, to the pumpkins nestled in the curlicues of suburban excess, but when you reach, say, 11th grade, the age at which you are old enough to be assigned Joan Didion essays to read by your slightly magical English teacher, you realize it’s just the wind. Not the Octobery tchotchkes. It’s the wind that’s fucking with you.
Joan Didion (from one of the essays toward the back of Slouching Towards Bethelehem):
There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.
Skipping a paragraph…
“On nights like that,” Raymond Chandler once wrote about the Santa Ana, “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.” That was the kind of wind it was. I did not know then that there was any basis for the effect it had on all of us, but it turns out to be another of those cases in which science bears out folk wisdom.
And also (can’t resist)…
Easterners commonly complain that there is no “weather” at all in Southern California, that the days and the seasons slip by relentlessly, numbingly bland. That is quite misleading. In fact the climate is characterized by infrequent but violent extremes: two periods of torrential subtropical rains which continue for weeks and wash out the hills and send subdivisions sliding toward the sea; about twenty scattered days a year of the Santa Ana, which, with its incendiary dryness, invariably means fire. At the first prediction of a Santa Ana, the Forest Service flies men and equipment from northern California into the southern forests, and the Los Angeles Fire Department cancels its ordinary non-firefighting routines. The Santa Ana caused Malibu to burn as it did in 1956, and Bel Air in 1961, and Santa Barbara in 1964. In the winter of 1966-67 eleven men were killed fighting a Santa Ana fire that spread through the San Gabriel Mountains.
Right on schedule, the fires in Los Angeles and Ventura counties are raging right now, and the Los Angeles Times is blogging about it like crazy. Here’s a photo taken by the LA Times’s Francine Orr last night of a news van parked just north of the 118 Freeway, just before evacuations were ordered. Those streaks of orange light are embers blowing in the wind.
Here’s a gallery of photos by LA Times’s photographers, beginning with this one:
And here’s a gallery of photos by Reuters photographers, including this one:
Gov. Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency. Two people are dead so far. And so is at least one squirrel, who started a small fire with its own flaming body (“Firefighters say the squirrel set off the blaze yesterday when it shorted out a power line, caught fire, and dropped into dry vegetation”).