As the Bay Area awoke this week to red skies and tragic news from the Wine Country Fires, many stayed indoors to avoid unnecessary smoke inhalation. San Francisco surfers in need of their daily escape paddled out at Ocean Beach in surf that had been groomed to perfection by the north easterly breeze.
Offshore winds are synonymous with dreamy beach scenes, but for humanity at large, the winds are a curse.
In southern California, offshore winds are called the Santa Anas.
The wind direction is so revered by surfers it has its own entry in the Encyclopedia of Surfing.
“Land-to-sea wind, loved by surfers. An offshore breeze will groom and clean the surf, and hold the curl up so that it’s more likely to pitch into a tube. It lends a dreamy quality to the wave zone,” wrote surf historian, Matthew Warshaw.
The last time California had a significant mix of ash and sea spray was during a wildfire in 2007. The resulting swells were nicknamed, “the fire swells.”
Maxwell Lohr, a SF State visual communication major, is from Newport Beach, California and witnessed both the 2007 fire swells and the apocalyptic scene at Ocean Beach this week.
“I remember clearly when the 2007 fire swells hit when I was 10,” said Lohr. “My dad took me to see the waves, and I’ve never been more scared and amazed in my life; it was a gnarly sight.”
In comparison to Monday’s conditions, Lohr said that 2007 fire swells were cleaner.
“The size of this swell was significant and the shape of the waves were peaky,” said Lohr.
The Encyclopedia of Surfing entry goes on to say that Santa Ana winds, sometimes called Diablo Winds in northern California, “are the hot, gusting, days-long offshore winds that often hit in fall and early winter and contribute to massively destructive brush fires.”
A low pressure system off the coast of Northern California with a high pressure system inland created an arid vacuum, causing warm-dry-air from the desert to blow towards the coast creating the perfect weather conditions for both wildfire and waves.
As firefighters fought the growing blaze in Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma county, surfers charged walls of water coated in ash.
In 1988, The Los Angeles times published a story entitled, “The Devil Winds Made Me Do It,” in which they described the effect that off shore winds have on those who don’t reap the benefits like surfers do.
Because the origin of offshore wind isn’t over water, the Santa Anas create an arid vacuum, sending a barrage of positive ions into the air. Despite their uplifting connotation, positive ions do just the opposite to people, especially the youth.
The wind’s electric feel causes serotonin levels to flush; leaving people’s emotions swinging from excited to irritable to pissed off.
While the connection isn’t clear, many experience head splitting migraines, nausea and headaches when the winds rush seaward. When the Santa Ana winds blow, typically from September through December, is considered as superstitious as the season of suicides; a time of the year when the wind whips up the nerves.
In an interview for the Los Angeles Times, Psychiatrist Paul Blair, said “while none of this is hard, hard data, there just seems to be some numerical significance to rates throughout the world of hospitalization and rates of criminal activity when these winds blow.”
Author Raymond Chandler wrote an excerpt about the Red Wind in a collection of short stories published in 1946.
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. 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.”
Offshore winds are a dichotomy that surfers face when it comes to having fun during natural disasters.
While surfing Monday morning at Ocean Beach with his brother, Diggy Valois, a SF State Broadcast and Electronic Communications Arts major, contemplated the contrast.
“I was just talking about this with my brother today. We were surfing Ocean Beach and talked about how it’s pretty heavy how whenever fires come it’s a sure sign the waves are good,” said Valois. “I mean it’s out of our hands, so you might as well surf.”
For fire fighters that surf, like 2017 World Police and Fire Games surfing champion Ian Garcia, offshore winds mean that the hobby takes backseat to the career. “Before I became a firefighter, I would look forward to offshore winds, but now when I see them on the forecast it means we will be busy,” said Garcia.
During October’s string of wildfires throughout California, the Heartland Fire and Rescue team, which Garcia is part of has, sent over five firefighters to assist with the Wine Country Fires. With vacancy within the department, Garcia has been working around the clock.
“Last year’s heavy rainfall caused for a lot of vegetation to grow back which has been dried by the offshore winds and added fuel to the wildfires,” said Garcia on why this year’s fire season has been particularly problematic.
Easterly winds are forecasted for the beginning of this week, creating further problems for the wildland firefighters throughout California. However Garcia said that he doesn’t blame surfers for looking forward to offshore wind. “Like firefighting, surfing is all about responding to changing conditions. Both firefighters and surfers try to find the silver lining with whatever Mother Nature dishes out.”