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Published: Wednesday, 10/24/2007

Ex-Toledoans provide refuge for relatives fleeing Calif. fires

BY MARK ZABORNEY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Toledo native Andrew Fenady and his wife, Mary Frances Fenady. Toledo native Andrew Fenady and his wife, Mary Frances Fenady.
THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER / JETTA FRASER Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Patrick Steusloff was certain early Monday morning that fire would spare his San Diego subdivision, yet he couldn't quite sleep.

"When you're lying there, you're kind of taking the measure of the smokiness by the smell," Mr. Steusloff, who grew up in Jackson, Mich., told The Blade during a telephone interview last night.

About 3 a.m., he suddenly felt the smell grow stronger.

He looked for a landmark. He couldn't see the palm tree just outside.

"I got up to discover the vacant lot behind my house and a house on the cul-de-sac were on fire," he said.

Mr. Steusloff, 54, and family - his wife, son, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and three dogs - found refuge in the Los Angeles home of his aunt, Mary Frances Fenady, and uncle, Andrew J. Fenady, a North Toledo native who has been a Hollywood writer and producer for more than 50 years.

"Fortunately, we're surrounded by cement," said Mr. Fenady, 79. "They didn't have anyplace to go. Mary Frances said, 'Come up here.' God knows we have enough room. We raised six kids in this house. Whether they were relatives or strangers, I wouldn't hesitate if they needed help."

Yesterday, in borrowed clothing - from underwear out - Mr. Steusloff walked one of the dogs at Hollywood and Vine, not far from the Fenadys' place in Hancock Park.

"It's wonderful," Mr. Steusloff said. "First of all, there's no smoke to smell. One of the things that's so oppressive is the constant smell of smoke. And my aunt and uncle are very gracious and welcoming, and we're comfortable there. It's not home, but it's family."

He has lived in San Diego for 26 years. The family has been through fires before. Sunday night, the fire was 15 miles away. And then it was just yards away.

Once Mr. Steusloff awakened his wife, Beth, and son, Peter, a high school senior, they gave themselves 20 minutes to leave. They took irreplaceables: family pictures off the wall; tax records; laptop computers; jewelry. A person can buy a toothbrush and clothes anywhere, Mr. Steusloff reasoned.

The escape was a challenge. Each drove a vehicle, and the fire arrived as a storm, burning houses and brush nearby.

"I'm not dramatizing this: There were tree limbs falling in front of the car that were on fire," Mr. Steusloff said. "The smoke was so thick we couldn't see, and we almost hit the mailboxes on the way out."

They picked up his wife's mother, Irene Black, 83, who lives in a senior community nearby, and his wife's sister, Joanna Boelio, who was visiting her mother from Huntington Woods, Mich.

Their plan was to stay at the Steusloffs' vacation home at Big Bear Lake, but the route there was blocked by fire.

Mr. Steusloff called his mother, Patricia, in Jackson, just so she wouldn't worry. And his mother, in turn, called her sister, Mary Frances Fenady in Los Angeles, who opened her home.

From safety, Mr. Steusloff and his family had to deal with the chance that their house was gone.

"We saw houses going down all around," he said. "It's just sickening. You look at a plate of food, and you can't eat because you want to throw up. You're hanging on to the 10 percent hope that it's still there."

By yesterday afternoon, Mr. Steusloff learned that the house survived. And the fire now seems to be heading in another direction, he said.

The Steusloffs will return home.

"We've lived there 13 years. If you take a look, that fire burned all the way to the ocean," he said. "We survived. We'll stay."

Contact Mark Zaborney at:

mzaborney@theblade.com

or 419-724-6182.



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