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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

This Is a Weird Time of Year in Los Angeles

posted by on October 14 at 12:06 PM

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”).

RSS icon Comments


The Didon essay is one of the creepiest things I've ever read.

God, I love her.

Posted by sw | October 14, 2008 12:21 PM

Growing up in Southern California in the 1950's, I came to know the nerve-ending prickle of an approaching Santana intimately. A sort of itch that couldn't be scratched, which I later came to associate with a life-threatening attack of shingles. Not only the nerves -- the sinuses are alert to the approaching sandstorm, and the eyes perceive a peculiar clarity to the atmosphere before the first leaf rustles faintly in the newborn breeze. In North Africa, they call it the simoom, and it drives people mad, listening to the blasting of sand against stucco, the banging of shutters, and the tortured whip of palm fronds. Oh, yes. Southern California does have weather.

Posted by Calpete | October 14, 2008 12:23 PM

"To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior."

That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.

Posted by east coaster | October 14, 2008 12:32 PM

Did Savage offer to start paying you to Slog or something? Man o man you've gone from zero to 60 in the last few days.

Posted by Non | October 14, 2008 12:34 PM

You captured the Santa Anas perfectly. I remember as a kid in Anaheim, standing outside in the hot dry winds of October. I felt invincible, but I could never put my finger on it like you did!

Posted by idaho | October 14, 2008 12:34 PM

I hope that wasn't Rachel, The Adult-Onset Diabetes Squirrel...

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | October 14, 2008 12:46 PM

Unfortunately, US Forest Sevice practices in the last century have set us up to fight these monster fires every year. Allowing controlled burns of undergrowth would reduce the severity of the fire season. The "no burns, at any time, ever" policy has created a problem that results in fires that kill people and destroy property annually, in all parts of the West.

Posted by Justin J | October 14, 2008 1:13 PM

In Southern California, Mother Nature does not start the fires. Man does.

Santa Ana winds are accompanied by clear skies. There are no lightning strikes. Nearly every wildfire that occurs near developed areas are caused by arson.

Posted by Mahtli69 | October 14, 2008 1:51 PM

Reading those excerpts reminds me of the way Ray Bradbury describes the night in Something Wicked This Way Comes, a story I first read as a boy living in Ventura County.

Posted by ragold | October 14, 2008 2:40 PM


You really do love to hate on West Coast writers, don't you? Joan Didion, splendidly literary child of California, is one of the best-ever chroniclers of that wonderfully strangest of the Western states. You'll never begin to understand her magic stuff unless you spend some time out here. Give it a try sometime.

Just stay away from Seattle.

Please. Honestly.

Posted by Jeff Stevens | October 14, 2008 3:15 PM

A fireball squirrel?! Jesus christ, that is a sign of the apocalypse for sure.

Posted by kerri harrop | October 14, 2008 3:36 PM

"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. You can even get a full glass of beer in a cocktail lounge."
- Raymond Chandler, "Red Wind" (1935)

Posted by E | October 14, 2008 3:46 PM

And don't miss "Santa Ana Woman" by The Bobs:

"The next thing I knew, there was a pain in my head like my sinuses were cracking. The Santa Ana winds had come back, and the whole city of L.A. was acting like it had PMS."

Posted by Nick | October 15, 2008 6:08 AM

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