‘Poison Wind’ in Santa Barbara

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I’m working now on a story about the future of wildfire prevention in California. In the course of my research, I ran into a colorful historical passage about Santa Barbara’s “sundowner” winds, which are hot winds that hurtle through the county’s canyons. Similar to Los Angeles’ famed Santa Ana winds, sundowners create conditions that prime the region for wildfires. Sundowners have played a role in some of Santa Barbara’s worst fires, including the ongoing Scherpa Fire. Fortunately, they’ve let up in recent days.

This description of sundowners, published in 1889, offers a dramatic illustration of what the winds can do. “Simoom” is an Arabic word referring to a wind phenomenon there; it translates to “poison wind”:

The only instance of the simoom on this coast, mentioned either in its history or traditions, was that occurring at Santa Barbara on Friday, the 17th of June, 1859. The temperature during the morning was between seventy-five and eighty degrees, and gradually and regularly increased until about one o’clock p. m., when a blast of hot air from the northwest swept suddenly over the town and struck the inhabitants with terror. It was quickly followed by others. At two o’clock the thermometer, exposed to the air, rose to one hundred and thirty-three degrees, and continued at or near that point for nearly three hours, whilst the burning wind raised dense clouds of impalpable dust. No human being could withstand the heat. All betook themselves to their dwellings and carefully closed every door and window. The thick adobe walls would have required days to have become warmed, and were consequently an admirable protection. Calves, rabbits, birds, etc., were killed; trees were blighted; fruit was blasted and fell to the ground, burned only on one side, and gardens were ruined. At five o’clock the thermometer fell to one hundred and twenty-two degrees, and at seven it stood at seventy-seven degrees. A fisherman in the channel in an open boat came back with his arms badly blistered.