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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Helping Hands: A fire truck for Cambodia

Summit resident holding fundraiser to buy and donate third rescue vehicle
By Kathryn Corazzelli

Doug Mendel stands next to Engine 633, which was graciously donated by the Red, White and Blue Fire District, in Prey Nop, Cambodia.

Since 1997, Summit County resident Doug Mendel has made 17 trips to Cambodia. His first, as a traveler for three days, got him hooked.

“I fell in love with the country: the people, the culture, the weather, food and crafts,” Mendel said.

On his third trip in 2001, Mendel spotted a fire station in Sihanoukville, a southern province of the country. A volunteer firefighter for the Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue at the time, Mendel realized the locals were responding to fires in flip-flops, T-shirts and shorts.

“I figured I could probably help them out,” he said.

So Mendel started collecting supplies and gear — bunker pants and coats, boots, helmets, gloves and suspenders. He was able to bring his first three boxes over in 2003.

Mendel kept his efforts up, and in 2005 earned his nonprofit status. The Douglas Mendel Cambodian Relief Fund was born. At the nonprofit's height, Mendel was helping six different fire stations with donated supplies and gear.

The first fire truck he delivered was in March 2006. Red, White and Blue Fire District donated it, and Mendel raised $18,000 to ship it. The truck went to Sihanoukville, where it lived for about six months before moving 20 miles north to a small town called Prey Nop. About once a year, a huge fire would break out in the town, and by the time the closest truck was able to make it from Sihanoukville, whatever had been on fire was gone. Right after the truck was transferred, a market with multiple stalls caught on fire. Because the vehicle was there, 100 stalls — and 100 families' livelihoods — were saved from going up in smoke.

In 2007, Mendel again donated a fire truck. He had one built in country before donating it to a station in a northeastern province.

The Cambodians love American fire trucks, Mendel said. They believe they're built better and are more durable.

“It's nice to see the firefighters using the supplies and gear I give them,” Mendel said. “It seems like they have more pride; that they know that somebody cares about them.”

An 18th trip

Two months ago, Mendel heard about a fire truck for sale in Fairplay — a 1977 American LaFrance 50-foot ladder truck, to be exact. The news captured Mendel's heart because there is currently only one ladder truck in all of Cambodia; in the capital Phnom Penh, which has a population of two million people. The extra vehicle would “help protect life and property.”

So Mendel, along with Red, White and Blue, are holding a spaghetti dinner fundraiser from 5-8 p.m. Sept. 8 at the Breckenridge firehouse on Main Street to help purchase the fire truck. He's hoping to raise $10,000, which would pay for the vehicle, and then a little bit extra in case he needs to foot the cost of shipping. Mendel has been working with Cambodia's Ministry of Interior to see if they will pay for shipment — which runs $16,500 — but he won't find out for another few weeks.

“If they don't pay for shipping, I'll just move on to the next project: raising $16,500,” Mendel said. “It's nice having a project that's so much bigger than myself.”

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