Cambodian firefighters getting gifts from mountains | VailDaily.com

Cambodian firefighters getting gifts from mountains

Jason Starr
Photo special to the DailyDoug Mendel at the Cambodian Fire Station.
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SILVERTHORNE ” It may seem like a far-fetched cause for a Silverthorne resident: helping firefighters in Cambodia. But it makes perfect sense for Doug Mendel.

His passion for Cambodia grew over several trips to the country over the past four years, and his knowledge of firefighting expanded during a six-year stint as a volunteer firefighter at Lake Dillon Fire Rescue.

He has combined the two interests into a prolonged campaign to increase the skills, knowledge and supplies of fire stations in Cambodia. “I’ve traveled to about 50 countries, and Cambodia is the one place that has captured my heart like no other,” Mendel said.

Mendel mentioned the country’s history as part of what got him interested in helping Cambodians. And it’s a dark history.

The Khmer Rouge was blamed for the death of millions of Cambodians during its bloody rule from 1975 to 1979. Even after it left power, remnants of the regime caused havoc in the country with kidnappings and banditry through 1998, when its leader, Pol Pot, died.

This tumultuous recent past has had a negative affect on the country’s infrastructure, such as its fire protection. Mendel, who always stopped at fire stations just out of curiosity during his travels, took a strong interest in a particular station in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

“During my trip in June 2001, that was the first time I had an idea that maybe I could help them out somehow,” he said.

Mendel took inventory of what the fire station had and saw one fire truck ” and that’s about it. There was no gear, no equipment and no training material.

When he returned to Summit County, Mendel asked local firefighters, especially from Lake Dillon Fire, where he was volunteering, to see what they could donate.

“When we’ve had stuff that was old or outdated, we’ve tried to help other departments,” said Lake Dillon fire chief Francis Winston. “As we update and keep up with technology, the old gear, while it doesn’t meet our standards, is far better than nothing.”

When Mendel returned to Cambodia in February of 2003, he brought boots, pants, shirts, windbreakers and other clothing donated from Lake Dillon to the fire station in Sihanoukville.

“They were all wide-eyed with curiosity and wonderment,” Mendel said.

He returned in October with eight, 5-mile-range radios. Six months later ” this past April ” he came back with books on fire science, more radios and a camcorder. Many of the items were donated from the lost-and-found at Keystone Resort. They had been left on the slopes during ski season.

He also expanded his efforts in April to include helping out Cambodia’s orphaned children, many of whom live on the streets. Timbuktu, a store in Keystone, donated clothing and toys for the effort.