SUMMIT COUNTY – If Doug Mendel has his way, every firefighter in Cambodia will soon be equipped with the protective fireproof gear that’s taken for granted in this country but still in short supply in far-away places like Sihanoukville, Battambang and Kampot.
On his most recent trip to Cambodia, Mendel delivered several more loads of so-called bunker gear to fire crews in the Southeast Asian country, much of it donated by fire departments here in Colorado. The Copper Mountain fire station, for example, donated 20 sets that might otherwise have ended up in the landfill.
And now, Mendel, a one-man relief organization, is putting out a call for wildland firefighting gear, because it weighs less and is therefore more suited to the smaller-statured Cambodian firefighters.
Along with the gear from Copper, Mendel also delivered 35 sets of brush pants to firefighters at Bokor National Park, an old colonial hill station near the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. As a former volunteer Lake Dillon firefigher, Mendel understands the importance of protective clothing, but he’s also helping the national park in other ways. His latest donation also included a batch of digital cameras, a basic requirement for park managers as they try to set up and enforce wildlife conservation programs.
But equipping Cambodian fire stations remains Mendel’s primary mission, something he’s been focused on since he visited the country back in 1997. In an article on his website (www.cambodiaphotogallery.com), Mendel explains that he tried to visit fire stations whenever possible on his trips, based in part on his own experience as a volunteer firefighter. In Cambodia, he found that many were sorely lacking in basic gear.
“I deal with the captains of the fire stations directly. The airfare, lodging and other travel expenses, that all comes straight out of my own pocket,” Mendel explained. He makes the most of the donations he gets, and he stretches the proceeds from the sale of Cambodian handicrafts a long way toward accomplishing his mission.
Mendel has been a fixture at local Christmas markets this season, and the handicrafts can also be purchased at a few local retail outlets around Summit County.
By working on his own, he avoids many of the overhead costs that can eat away at the effectiveness of larger relief organizations.
“Every time I go I try to assess the needs of the fire stations. I do get overwhelmed at times, but I do feel like I have a grip on things,” Mendel says.
Of course, his biggest coup to date has been the donation of an old fire truck. The vehicle, which belonged to Breckenridge’s Red, White and Blue Fire Department, will soon be bound for Cambodia, along with two engineers from the department who will train crews in Sihanoukville.
Mendel says, that thanks to generous local donations and support from his family, he’s more than two-thirds of the way toward raising the $15,000 needed to ship the truck across the Pacific, and he hopes to complete the mission this coming spring.
“The support I’ve had has been phenomenal,” Mendel says. “I’m nearly there.”
On the other end, he says he’s made progress with Cambodian officials, who have promised their assistance when it comes to clearing customs and taking care of duty issues.
In all, Mendel says he’s helped about eight fire stations around the country, and he knows of at least eight more that are under-equipped, so his job is far fromdone.