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Colo. Fire Victims Laud Chef

June 16, 2000

DRAKE, Colo. (AP) _ The chef called it bobcat stew, but it ``tasted like love″ to Karen Yuskaitis.

The stew was the latest of hundreds of meals Max Haghigli has served since a wildfire chased hundreds of people out of their homes east of Rocky Mountain National Park.

``This man is an absolute angel,″ said Sara Carniglia-Rosa, among those gathered Thursday at Haghigli’s River Forks Inn. ``He’s collecting all his proceeds for the volunteer fire department. He’s been here since the fire started.″

The fire, one of two devastating the Colorado foothills this week, has burned thousands of acres and destroyed approximately 15 homes.

Homeowners and businesses have brought all the food they could find to the inn. There were no bobcats: The stew is named after the area where the fire started, Bobcat Gulch.

Haghigli, his eyes the color of brake lights due to a lack of sleep, has risen to the task, feeding 100 or more people a night.

``He’s not stopped a single minute. He tells other people to sit down and rest,″ said Charlotte Bobo, a victims assistance representative for Larimer County.

During this week’s disaster marathon, Haghigli went 67 hours before catching three hours of sleep. The 52-year-old native of Turkey says he just wants to help.

``I know what it is like to live through a natural disaster,″ he said. ``I lived through quite a few earthquakes.″

He said his family lost 57 members in last fall’s two major quakes.

``He has a huge heart,″ said Yuskaitis, eating her stew in a cold but welcome wind that gave her hope her mountain cabin may escape the blaze.

She explained how most residents are too tired after commuting on a narrow mountain road to stop at the restaurant, which caters to tourists.

After this week, it’s unlikely any nearby resident will be a stranger. Nearly everyone who arrived got a handshake from Haghigli, whose restaurant near the Big Thompson River has served as a makeshift town hall during the emergency.

``This is his big opportunity to show he is part of the mountain even though he’s down here,″ Yuskaitis said.

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