Friday, 22 August 2008

With help, Montrose man dousing Cambodian fires

By Reilly Capps, staff writer
Daily Planet
Thu Aug 21, 2008

Cambodia doesn’t have much, and what little they do have keeps burning down, because that beautiful and battered country doesn’t have enough fire fighting equipment or fire stations to keep up. The whole country, in fact, has far fewer fire stations than the Western Slope.

In the capital, Phnom Penh, for example, there is only one fire station and just nine trucks to protect two million people. It’s not uncommon for dozens, even hundreds of rickety buildings to burn down before a truck can get to the blaze.

That dire situation struck Montrose resident and former volunteer fireman Doug Mendel as nearly criminal, and he’s working to change it. He’s coordinated the donation of tons of gear and two fire trucks to departments throughout the country.

He long ago fell in love with this southeast Asian nation famous for producing Angkor Wat and children of Angelina Jolie. While on vacation in Cambodia in 2001, Mendel noticed that the fire station in Sihanoukville was unbelievably run-down and decrepit.

“It was very basic and almost barren,” he said.

When he came back, he convinced the Breckenridge fire department to donate an old fire truck, and he raised the $18,000 necessary to ship it over to Sihanoukville. In 2005, three members of the Breck fire department traveled to Cambodia to teach the locals how to use it.

“It was actually really awesome,” said Kim Scott, a captain in the Breck department. She couldn’t make the trip, but heard that the Cambodians “were so appreciative it makes you want to cry.”

A lot of things about Cambodia make you want to cry, since the story of Cambodia since 1970 is pure tragedy: illegal American bombing and intense civil war, and then the horror of Pol Pot, who promoted communism by snuffing out 1.7 million of his own countrymen and left huge parts of the country booby-trapped with land mines.

Today, the president is bringing real reform and the economy is improving, but one-armed kids still beg on street corners and sit below your table, big eyes desperate for a scrap of leftover noodles.

To travel there is to have your heart expanded, lifted … and broken into a million little pieces.

And Mendel’s big heart isn’t reserved just for underfunded fire stations. He’s also donated cameras to national park rangers so that they can document poaching and illegal logging activities, and brought over medical and dental supplies for street children.

And, he gives them stuffed animals.

“It makes their day,” Mendel said. “They’re such genuinely happy people. Especially the children. They have so little. It just lights ‘em up.”

Last year, Mendel had a fire truck built for a remote province, Ratanakiri, and his project this year is to build a whole new fire station in that province’s capital, Ban Lung. Building a whole fire station, from foundation to roof, costs just $35,000 — less than a new Toyota FourRunner.

To fund his travel, Mendel saves what he makes at the Montrose Home Depot. And when he returns from Cambodia, he brings back silk purses, silk scarves, jewelry boxes and table cloths, and sells them around the Western Slope. Yesterday, he was peddling the Cambodian stuff at the Grand Junction Flea Market.

Mendel’s next term goal is to raise a couple hundred g’s to build two fire stations in Phnom Penh, since it breaks his heart to read about the fires that ravage the capital. There was a fire not long ago, he said, that took out 500 slum houses and just about every single possession a lot of families had.

“It would bring tears to my eyes to see one or two more fire stations in Phnom Penh,” Mendel said.

Scott, the Breck fire captain, said her department’s relationship with Cambodia has expanded their world, and said Mendel made it possible.

“He’s just an amazing man,” she said. “It’s a really nice feeling when you know you’re helping people.”

Mendel returns to Cambodia in October, his 12th trip in six years, brining over 800 pounds of gear for the Phnom Penh station. His nonprofit, the Douglas Mendel Cambodian Relief Fund, is looking for donations. If you’d like to help, surf to, where you can watch videos, see pictures and donate via PayPal. Or call him at 970-240-6120.

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