The Santa Ana winds blow into Southern California during the fall and winter months, typically from October to February. October through January are the prime months for strong Santa Ana winds but can occur any time after August and before June. Santa Ana winds can blow violently over the southwestern slopes of the coastal ranges into the heavily populated Southern California area.
As the wind flows over the Sierra Nevada and Santa Ana mountains, it drops from high elevation to sea level. The sinking air becomes compressed and heats up, and its relative humidity drops. Gaps in the mountains form wind tunnels that strengthens the wind as it pours warm air through the canyons. As the wind goes whooshing toward the coast vegetation is parched becoming fuel for a fire.
Southern California’s legendary Santa Ana winds wreak havoc every year, creating hot, dry conditions and fire hazards.
Santa Ana Wind Hazards
The Santa Ana Winds are a natural phenomenon in Southern California that contributes to Orange County’s fire ecology. The hot, dry winds are fire hazards because they suck moisture from grass, trees and shrubs creating highly flammable brush. The unique traits of Santa Ana winds also makes them particularly effective at sending flames rushing into new areas.
However, the Santa Ana Winds do not typically cause fires but they do exacerbate wildfires. People often start the fires either through negligence, arson or human technology such as electrical lines but once a fire starts, gusty winds speed it along and carry burning debris to new areas.
Historical Major Fires Fanned by the Santa Ana Winds:
Woolsey fire (2018), Thomas Fire (2017), Canyon Fire 2 (2017), Freeway Complex fire (2008), Santiago fire (2007), Sierra Fire (February, 2006), Laguna Beach fire (1993), Gypsum Canyon Fire (October, 1982), Santiago Canyon Fire (1974), Paseo Grande fire (1967), Stewart fire (1958), Green River fire (1948)
The Santa Wind gusts can reach as high 80 mph and have even been recorded higher. Gusts that strong can topple trees and send objects flying through the air. In the ocean, normally calm and safe seas become high surf areas threatening both swimmers and boats. There is often physical property damage, but the winds do cause injury and even have even led to deaths.
Santa Ana Wind Fog
When the Santa Ana winds begin to recede, a fog settles over Southern California in its wake. Where dry air prevailed in the lower atmosphere during the Santa Ana winds, a cool moist layer forms quickly after the winds stop, creating a dense fog.
The winds kick up mold spores, pollens and especially a lot of dust that can irritate nasal and airway passages and eyes. Allergy and asthma sufferers often go to emergency rooms because their symptoms worsen. It is the unadvertised price residents pay for the region’s otherwise idyllic weather.
Predicting Santa Ana Winds
The Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index (SAWTI) categorizes Santa Ana winds in four zones of Southern California based on anticipated fire potential. The index uses a state-of-the-art predictive model to generate a 6-day forecast of Large Fire Potential.
- NO RATING: Santa Ana winds are either not expected, or will not contribute to significant fire activity.
- MARGINAL: Upon ignition, fires may grow rapidly.
- MODERATE: Upon ignition, fires will grow rapidly and will be difficult to control.
- HIGH: Upon ignition, fires will grow very rapidly, will burn intensely, and will be very difficult to control.
- EXTREME: Upon ignition, fires will have extreme growth, will burn very intensely, and will be uncontrollable.
Santa Ana Winds Things to Know
- Most active period: October – February with the peak months being October and November.
- Average frequency of a Santa Ana event is 20 years.
- Average duration of a Santa Ana event is 1.5 days.
- Frequency of Santa Ana events is lower than average during El Nino.
- Wind speeds have been clocked as high 110 mph. 30 mph is a milder Santa Ana wind event.
- The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has defined the Santa Anas as “dry north-easterly winds having speeds in excess of 25 knots.”
- Once the Santa Ana winds begin to calm down, a dense fog takes over southern California where a cool moist layer forms quickly after the winds stop.
- They blow hot. They even blow cold.
Santa Ana Winds Legend
There are many different versions blowing around, pun intended, as to why the winds are called Santa Ana. However, most historical records show that the winds were called the Santa Anas as early as the mid-1800s with other names appearing later. Nevertheless, here are a few of the legends:
- The name was actually “Satanas”, Spanish for Satan.
- The name was an Indian term for “devil wind.”
- Others believe the name of the winds was “Santana” or “Zanta Winds.” In fact, throughout the early to mid-1900’s the media called the winds Santa Ana and Santana almost interchangeably.
- The winds were named after Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, whose cavalry stirred up clouds of dust during military campaigns.
- Most agree it comes from the mountain range and canyon, where the winds stir up dust storms.
- There is also much speculation that the winds stir crime up and psychological disturbances as Joan Didion wrote in 1965 (more below).
Santa Ana Winds Myths
They may or may not incline us to to behave more aggressively, murder, or cause migraines. Local legends associate the hot, dry winds with homicides and earthquakes, but these are myths. Most assuredly they can cause fires, allergies and ruin many a Halloween and Christmas front yard displays.
Dodgers fans even credit the winds for losing a playoff game against the Giants. In 2021 with none on and two out and the Dodgers trailing by a run, Gavin Lux hit a 107 mph line drive that many believed was a home run. But Santa Ana wind gusts that hovered around 15 mph knocked the baseball down as it traveled into the deeper parts of Dodger Stadium’s center field.
Santa Ana Winds Songs, Movies, Pop Culture
The Santa Ana Winds have a long history of being mentioned in songs, movies and pop culture. Here are a few more notable pop culture references about the Santa Ana winds.
- The Santa Ana winds are the subject of a 1965 essay by Joan Didion from her collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In the essay Didion writes “To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior. …[T]he violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.“
- The 1983 Randy Newman song I Love L.A. includes the lines “Santa Ana winds blowin’ hot from the north / And we was born to ride”
- The Beach Boys song “Santa Ana Winds” appears on their 1980 album Keepin’ the Summer Alive. In the song they refer to the Santa Ana winds as “fire wind” and “desert wind.”
- The Santa Ana winds are important aspects in the 1985 novel Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis.
- In a 2008 Silent Love Song Jason Mraz includes the lyrics “The window opens up and lets in The Santa Ana winds again She’s a silent love song Never stays long Does not belong to any person Though she’s opening the curtains in my head She’s a kind of quiet And always hides it in a flame She’s certainly a hurricane.”
- In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the Santa Ana winds are personified as a Frankie Valli-esque sound-alike that makes everyone in West Covina, California act “weird”. Check out the video…
Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS)
Due to weather conditions that may create the potential for elevated fire risk, Southern California Edison (SCE) Public Safety Power Shutoffs can be under consideration in parts of SCE service territory. To find out if you are impacted, refer to the SCE’s PSPS website. SCE customers can also sign up for outage alerts.
The Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index (SAWTI), produced by USDA Forest Service and Predictive Services, categorizes Santa Ana winds based on anticipated fire potential. The index uses a comprehensive, state of-the-art predictive model to create a detailed daily assessment of the fuel conditions across Southern California. This information is coupled with calibrated weather model output (comprised of wind speed and atmospheric moisture), to generate a 6-day forecast of Large Fire Potential. The Large Fire Potential output is then compared to climatological data and historical fire occurrence to establish the index rating. There are four threat zones monitored: Zone 1: Los Angeles-Ventura; Zone 2: Orange-Inland Empire; Zone 3: San Diego; Zone 4: Santa Barbara. The Threat Index includes four classification levels from “Marginal” to “Extreme.”
The National Weather Service can also be monitored for Santa Ana Wind and fire forecasts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Santa Ana winds only in California?
The Santa Ana winds affect coastal Southern California including San Diego, Los Angeles Ventura and Orange Counties, and the northern Baja California area of Mexico.
Where are the Santa Ana winds the strongest?
The strongest winds are usually through the mountain passes sucn Banning Pass, Cajon Pass, Tejon Pass aka the Grapevine, and Soledad Pass. Mountain ranges.
When do the Santa Ana winds start?
Santa Ana winds can start as early as October but as with all weather related events it will vary by season.
What months do Santa Ana winds occur?
The Santa Ana winds occur October through February while October and November are considered the peak months.
How far in advance can Santa Ana winds be predicted?
Santa Ana winds in Southern California can be predicted up to six days in advance using the Offshore Flow Severity Index (OFSI) developed by meteorologists and the federal government.
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Monique McArthur is a mother of two, writer, and creator of delicious recipes. In her spare time she enjoys exploring all that Orange County has to offer, traveling, shopping, running with her dogs and spending time with family.