Friday, October 10, 2008

The Blustery Day

It may never rain in Southern California, but it gets windy occasionally, and, really, it’s those days you have to watch out for.

I doubt I would have ever let windy days in Santa Barbara rattle me if I hadn’t taken the job at the newspaper. For the oblivious and urban, I’d imagine, this type of weather means minor inconveniences: wide wakes of dust near open windows and assaulting specks in the eyes during the walk from the parking spot to the office.

I no longer think this way.

Especially in early, dry autumn, I think about fires. Twice, now, I’ve had Independence Day ruined: last year’s Zaca Fire last year, which actually started on July 4, and this year’s Gap Fire, which was sparked on July 1. Plans for holiday relaxation and beachside fireworks-viewing went up in smoke, so to speak, on both occasions. Zaca and Gap may have resulted from human actions, but both blazes nonetheless became hot and sassy centers of my universe during their respective lifespans.

I have the house to myself this weekend. If some horrible firebeast showed up and consumed my plans — and, hell, maybe my house — then we’d have established a pattern, wouldn’t we? We just might. Today, both the county fire department and the Los Padres forest service announced that they would be temporarily increasing ready-and-able staff as a result of hot, dry winds blowing on a hot, dry day over wilderness that, by and large, is also hot and dry. Bad alignment of the stars.

It seemed important to me — and probably only me — that these two notes of caution referred to the winds differently. The first called them Sundowners — or, specifically, “Sundowner-type winds,” which Sundowners most assuredly are — and the second called them Santa Anas — or, specifically, a “Santa Ana wind event.” (It’s diction like this that also gives us “male subject” in police reports when the author actually means “man.” You have to love the law-and-order approach to English, which is at least better than the Law & Order style to English.) At some point, I learned the differences between these two types of winds — or “wind events,” if you want to be formal and therefore verbose about it — but I couldn’t remember today and looked them up.

Wikipedia describes the Santa Ana winds as strong, dry offshore winds that characteristically sweep through Southern California and northern Baja California in late autumn into winter. It goes on to note that they can be either hot or cold but are often thought of as being warm because their arrival can bring the highest temperatures of the year. For obvious reasons, they can also turn a small fire into a large problem.

The term Sundowner, conversely, refers to a wind phenomenon that occurs in Santa Barbara. This I did not know. I thought the term was much more widespread. Probably as a result of its limited habitat, the Wikipedia article on Sundowners is much shorter than the one on Santa Anas. It explains them as follows:
A Sundowner is an offshore wind which occurs when a region of high pressure is directly north of the Santa Barbara area, the part of the California coast which trends east-west. When the pressure gradient is perpendicular to the axis of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which rise directly behind Santa Barbara, the winds blow with greatest force. These winds often precede Santa Ana events by a day or two, as it is normal for high pressure areas to migrate east, causing the pressure gradients to shift to the northeast.
Given this, I suppose that both press releases could be correct: The first was sent only to Santa Barbara media, while the second one went to most outlets in Southern California. And I guess I shouldn’t quibble: I myself apparently am inclined to pronounce “Santa Ana” as “Santee Ana,” possibly because it’s just easier to say and possibly because my hometown sits beneath a mountain whose name is often pronounced by second-, third-, and fourth-generation residents as “Santee Ana Peak.” Either way, it’s a Southern California shibboleth: I sound like some bumpkin awaiting Santy Claws on Krishmush.

In spite of the fact the wind has been blowing all day in Santa Barbara, the origin of Sundowner seems obvious. Wikipedia makes no mention of it, but it goes into some depth for “Santa Ana,” whose origin is stranger than you might think. Despite the existence of the Santa Ana mountains, the Santa Ana River and the Santa Ana Canyon in Southern California, no one sure whether the winds took their name from these geographical features. The origin is obscure. One especially fun theory traces the term to a corruption of the Spanish term for the phenomenon: “Santana winds,” from the Spanish vientos de Satán, which, in turn, comes from a translation from some unspecified pre-Spanish language. The devil, I guess, really is in the details, at least for the topic at hand.

I should note that Wikipedia is politely questioning the accuracy of this claim with a little superscript “citation needed” floating beside the paragraph that contains it. I don’t know why the Spanish would have said vientos de Satán instead of vientos del diablo. (I do know, however, that Carlos Santana just recently played at the Santa Barbara Bowl, so he may well be involved in this as well. I’ll keep you posted.) This point is further complicated by the existence of yet another meteorological term, Diablo winds, which refer specifically to Santa Ana-like winds that occur around San Francisco. Wikipedia claims that this term arose much more recently: in 1991, when area media coined it in connection with the firestorm in Oakland that year. It may have originated, Wikipedia continues, “from the observation that the wind blows into the inner Bay Area from the direction of the Diablo Valley in adjacent Contra Costa County, and [because of] the fiery, sensationalist connotation inherent in devil wind.”

Any discussion of the connection between breezes and Beelzebub should rightly mention the superstition that the Santa Ana winds make people act bizarrely, violently, angrily, and unexpectedly. Strangely, Wikipedia makes no mention of it on the Santa Ana page itself, save for in the section labeled “Santa Ana winds in popular culture,” but I could swore that Joan Didion did in that one book she wrote. (You know — the one where she writes beautifully about some element of California? That single one?) Supposed mood-altering properties are, however, discussed in the entry for foehn winds. (I know, I know — yet another wind. It’s a little tedious to me too, at this point, though the addition of this one makes for four winds, which is also the title of a Bright Eyes song that happens to mention “The Great Satan” as well as the phrase “slouching towards Bethlehem, which was also the title of a Joan Didion book and could very well be the one I’m thinking of.) Also known as föhn winds, Foehn winds — which, as I understand them, occur in Central Europe but are not restricted to that area — are believed to cause some sort of mental illness. In German, the word for this affliction is Föhnkrankheit, which would be altogether wonderful from a verbal standpoint if it wasn’t associated with some major negatives, such as a 10 percent increase in suicides. The discussion of Föhnkrankheit is fairly limited, and any scientific explanation has yet to be proven for it and its apparent cousin illness, Sanatanakrankheit.

At the moment, the winds seem to have died down somewhat. I don’t feel crazy, although the scraping of tree branches against the metal gutter and the spectral swinging of my neighbor’s screen door may push me to that point if the air starts moving again. I’m not presently on fire and, if all goes well, I’ll get a full, unscorched weekend of solitude out of this yet.

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