Helping Hands: Fighting foreign fires
Engine 633 has been serving its district for seven years now. While its history and its decals declare it to be a “Red White & Blue Fire Rescue” vehicle, the fire truck is a long way Summit County. More than 8,000 miles away, in fact.The engine was a gift to the firefighting station in Preynup, Cambodia, from the Douglas Mendel Cambodian Relief Fund, a nonprofit organization started by Summit County local Mendel about eight years ago. Currently, the organization is holding a fundraiser to generate $4,000 to make much-needed repairs to Engine 633 so that it can continue to serve the Cambodian firefighters who need it.Though the organization received its nonprofit status in 2005, the seeds for the program were planted much earlier than that. In 1997, during a six-month-long trip throughout Asia, Mendel set foot in Cambodia for the first time, little knowing that it would soon change his life.”It captivated my heart, in more ways than one,” he said about the experience. Mendel enjoyed his time in the country so much that it never left his mind completely. Several years later, he returned multiple times. It was on one of those follow-up trips that a fire station in the town of Sihanoukville caught his eye and something clicked.”After my first trip to Cambodia in June ’97, I fell in love with the people, the culture, the weather, the food, the handicrafts, everything,” Mendel said. “Because I saw a fire station in June ’01 – and that’s all I did, was just see it – I had an idea that when I came back, maybe I could help.”Mendel, who had been living in Summit County since 1991, signed up as a volunteer firefighter with the Lake Dillon Fire Department in 1997, serving for four years between ’97 and 2003. After receiving that spark of inspiration, he approached the fire chief and arranged for a donation of three boxes of firefighter clothing, including boots, pants and light windbreakers. Mendel took them back on his next trip to Cambodia and, with the help of a translator, he presented the gifts to the firefighters at the station.”Basically, they would respond to fires in t-shirts, flip flops and shorts,” Mendel said, of the station’s previous equipment. “The fire station in Sihanoukville has 13 firefighters and, at the time, they had one fire truck, and I could see … there was an old hose or maybe what we would consider old bunker gear, but it didn’t seem like it would be functional.”Mendel familiarized himself with the station’s problems which, beyond lack of proper gear, included difficulty with the city’s 20 fire hydrants, which might have one of three types of hose connections.Though pleased with his success, Mendel wanted to keep doing more.”When I was there that trip, I asked, through my translator, the fire chief, I said, ‘This isn’t a one-time deal. I’ll come every six months, please tell me what you want and I’ll do my best to bring whatever you ask on my next trip.'”The chief requested walkie-talkie radios, which Mendel made his mission to gather and bring on his next trip. Donations from Breckenridge and Keystone ski areas helped, he said, and he soon bought sets from local stores as well.For a while, Mendel traveled from the United States to Cambodia nearly every six months, each time bringing more supplies and money to assist not only the Sihanoukville fire station, but stations in other areas as well. In 2005, Mendel’s organization received its nonprofit status, allowing it to do even more. “At the height of what I was doing, I was helping six fire stations, two national parks that had two fire trucks (one for each) and two organizations, one that helps disabled Cambodians with employment and one organization that helps disadvantaged street children,” Mendel said. After 18 trips to Cambodia, Mendel has scaled back a little and says he’s now focused on maintaining the two fire trucks he managed to bring into being – Engine 633 in Preynop and another in the remote town of Ratanakiri. In total, he estimates he’s brought over nearly 4 tons of firefighting gear and supplies.”My goal is to go back every other year or so to maintain the two fire trucks, because it truly is priceless to be protecting life and safety,” he said.He’s also planning on writing a book about his personal experience and endeavors in Cambodia, which he hopes to publish some time next year. Talking with him, it’s clear that his love for the country is still strong.”The people, they’re very beautiful, inside and out,” he said. “They’re very caring and giving.”Mendel said he has also been amazed at the kindness of people in Summit County when it comes to helping people who live so far away. The community response to his fundraising endeavors has been “very positive,” he said. “Summit County has been very generous, giving and compassionate towards my endeavors helping the Cambodian people for the past (eight) years.”
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