The winds had another potential side effect, desiccating brush in foothill and other areas vulnerable to wildfires. L.A. County Fire Department Inspector Brian Riley said it hasn't rained enough in recent months to offset the drying effect of a strong wind event. The county fire department added extra staffing and sent crews to susceptible areas.
In Altadena, Santa Rosa Avenue resident Tony Ward, 68, worried not only about the electric outages and the damage but also about a Christmas tradition that goes back to 1920.
Since then, the street, which also spans a part of Pasadena, has been known as Christmas Tree Lane because of the estimated 10,000 lights strung along boughs and trunks of massive cedar trees. Organizers say it's the "oldest large-scale lighting spectacle" in the country.
Volunteers from throughout the county show up to prepare the trees for the lighting, which is supposed to take place this Saturday. The traditional lighting of the trees has been canceled only during World War II and in 1973, when President Nixon asked Americans to conserve power because of world events, Ward said.
Ward, who coordinates the volunteers, said he hoped this year's lighting wouldn't be a casualty of the windstorm. The storm knocked down one large tree and felled limbs and power lines. Debris has to be cleared, he said.
"We can't tell if the lights work until we try to turn them on, but the limbs took out wires and things like that," Ward said. "A lot of people from throughout the community come to help, so to go through all this trouble only for the lights not to go on this year — that would be a major disappointment."
It was no surprise that Southern California experienced strong winds, because this is the Santa Ana season. But the windstorm that plowed through the region was no normal wind event. A low-pressure and a high-pressure system that worked in tandem blew winds more from the north, so they were colder.
Furthermore, winds at the upper atmosphere and those closer to the surface were almost in perfect sync as far as speeds and direction, which some experts said is relatively unusual.
Unlike the warmer winds of a typical Santa Ana, these accelerated gusts quickly sank to lower elevations, coming out of mountain passes and canyons, and raked over foothill communities. Some gusts pushed 100 mph. There was some debate over whether these were technically Santa Ana winds because they were so different, but most experts considered them so.
Especially hard hit were trees, which in urbanized Southern California tend to have shallow root systems compared with their trunks and fanned-out canopies. Walter Warriner, a Santa Monica arborist, said a lot of trees have their roots cut for sidewalk and street repairs, which eliminates anchors to hold them down in exceedingly strong winds.
"There's an urban myth that what you see above ground is mirrored below ground," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Full coverage: Dangerous winds
Times staff writer Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.