“The Santa Ana winds were blasting through the streets, bristling and smelling of desert, of white sunlight, of sharp, wiry plants and white rock…A hot madness was enclosing the city.” Kate Braverman, Lithium for Medea (February 5, 1949 – October 12, 2019)
California’s wildfire season is fully upon us this week, both in Northern and Southern California. These seasonal hot, dry winds go by many names. Here in Los Angeles, I’ve always known them as the Santa Anas; in Northern California they go by the Diablos. From my personal, nonscientific vantage point, I’ve always experienced Santa Ana season as one in which our typically gentle maritime climate becomes upended by furiously destructive, dessicating devil winds that blow in hair-dryer hot from the east, carrying unfamiliar scents and often igniting wildfires. Your skin itches, your nerves get jangly, and a general feeling of unease descends on our golden la-la land. But these last three years, the unprecedented range and fury of the fires is unlike anything these winds have wrought in living memory.
(A more technical description would be: “The Santa Anas are katabatic winds—Greek for “flowing downhill,” arising in higher altitudes and blowing down towards sea level. Santa Ana winds originate from high-pressure airmasses over the Great Basin and upper Mojave Desert. Any low-pressure area over the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California, can change the stability of the Great Basin High, causing a pressure gradient that turns the synoptic scale winds southward down the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada and into the Southern California region. Cool, dry air flows outward in a clockwise spiral from the high pressure center. This cool, dry airmass sweeps across the deserts of eastern California toward the coast, and encounters the towering Transverse Ranges, which separate coastal Southern California from the deserts. The airmass, flowing from high pressure in the Great Basin to a low pressure center off the coast, takes the path of least resistance by channeling through the mountain passes to the lower coastal elevations, as the low pressure area off the coast pulls the airmass offshore. ” — Wikipedia)
Fighting off these wildfires in the wildland-urban interface areas like the Pacific Palisades may involve evacuations, lost pets, and possibly turning your white house pink by the fire retardant Phos-chek. And as the utilities face legal liability for their infrastructure sparking deadly wildfires, preemptive power shutoffs are a recent tactical maneuver that may become the new normal in wildfire season.
It’s quibbling to complain about houses turning pink when the alternative is too awful to contemplate. Still, Mitch’s photos of his friends’ family home recently sprayed with the fire retardant Phos-chek brought a visual specificity to the treatment that I previously hadn’t considered. It covers everything, not just “wildland fuels” but houses and gardens too. And don’t reach for the power washer for cleanup, which might force the residue into crevices that will be forever pink; rather, a gentle spray from the garden hose is advised.
(“Wildland fire retardants are generally quite water-soluble and can be removed from smooth surfaces with little effort prior to drying. Undissolved components may, however, penetrate into porous or rough surfaces and become difficult to remove. When allowed to dry, contained thickeners may form films that tend to hold the dried retardant rather tightly to that on which it lands. This is desirable when it lands on wildland fuels. It is less desirable, however, when trying to remove it from other areas. Retardant residues should be removed as soon as possible. After drying, some scrubbing or power washing of structures and equipment may be required. Care should be taken when using power washing equipment to prevent increased penetration of the dry powder components into porous or on rough surfaces. A mild surfactant, including those that contain enzymes, may assist or improve the ease of removal.” Phos-Chek® Fire Retardants For Use in Preventing & Controlling Fires in Wildland Fuels)
Zika’s deck saw a lot of action over the course of the firewatch. Los Angeles Times film crews shot headline photos from here, firefighters kept watch overnight, sleeping on patio furniture. Not being hesitant to show gratitude, Zika deposited a dead rat she hunted down in the canyon upon being freed from the bedroom closet, right at the feet of the sleeping firemen — which in case they didn’t know, translates into thank-you.
Hoping to hear more happy endings from those currently under firewatch. The winds are predicted to pick up even more fiercely on Saturday. Stay safe.