Around the Nation

Wildfires hit close to home

Photo by Ninian Reed

By Ryan Scott

If you look at a map of the wildfires raging across Australia for months now, you see a large concentration in the southeast part of the country. It seems like a small corner until you realize what appears to be a short distance between Melbourne and Sydney is actually the same distance as that between New York and Chicago.

Much of it is on fire. All of it is affected.

If you then zoom the map back out, you see dots, indicating fires, spread up and down, east and west, and the real magnitude of the problem might just begin to set in. For some in the Division III basketball community, it’s been setting in a lot, and for a long time now.

“When the fires first started they were very close to my home,” says SUNY-Canton sophomore, George Nehma, “I was trying to message my parents and there wasn’t much media coverage at all.”

The media coverage has picked up considerably in the U.S., but it’s largely been in pictures of injured animals and smoke-filled skies, which don’t give proper context to the scope and size of the problem.

In the U.S., typically forest fires occur in sparsely populated part of the rural west, so it’s only natural to assume that Australia, with huge swaths of uninhabited inland territory has a similar pattern. Fires, though, especially this season, have largely occurred along the coasts, where people live. Yes, they happen in forested, rural areas, but these places are full of small towns and farms.

“Australia has a lot of rural communities,” says Whitman senior Robert Colton. “They’re a lot like Walla Walla [where Whitman is located]. It’s fun to take a road trip and see all these places, but you can’t do that anymore. There’s no way to know how this will change things there.”

One person who will know sooner than others is McDaniel’s Liv Storer, who hails from Wangaratta, which has become of a base of operations for response to and recovery from some of the worst fires.

“A lot of the outlying farming communities around our town have been evacuated,” says Storer. “A lot of [evacuees] camping out at the show grounds, about a block away from my house. The town is near the mountains, where a lot of the fires have been – a couple of the big fires have joined together nearby.”

Fire season typically kicks off around this time of year – late January and into February, the Australian summer – but these fires have been ranging for months now with no end in sight. The air quality is terrible and people, even in the large cities, have been warned to stay indoors. Earlier this week one competitor in a warm-up tournament for the Australian Open had to retire from her match due to smoke related breathing difficulties.

Notes Nehma: “My home is only forty minutes from the city center of Sydney. That gives you some perspective of how close the fires really are to everyone.”

Photo by Ninian Reed

For those far away, nearly 10,000 miles for those playing basketball in the U.S., it’s an added burden to worry about such unprecedented disaster so far from home. It’s an additional pressure on top of classes and makes focusing on the court even more difficult.

“It’s hard to wake up in the morning and check the news,” says Storer. “Fires are getting closer to people I know, but modern communication makes it easier [to be so far away].”

With an area the size of West Virginia on fire, spread over a span that could stretch from one end of the United States to the other, sometimes it feels like an impossible task, but each student I spoke with emphasized how encouraging it is to see volunteers from the U.S. and Canada and around the world traveling all the way to Australia to help out.

Colton says, “‘G’day mate’ is a bit of a joke in America, but the idea of mateship is really important to Australian culture. There’s a really cool network [Australians in the U.S.] maintain. Anyone who is in the college [basketball] picture has probably come across each other at some point so there’s a real sense of camaraderie.”

Nehma notes: “There are hundreds of thousands of people back home helping out and supporting volunteers. Australia prides itself on coming together in the face of difficulty. We know how to mobilize.”

Australia doesn’t have a monopoly on disaster either. As I write this, Puerto Rico is dealing with thousands of earthquakes over the last few months, including three major quakes, far larger than their infrastructure can withstand. All this comes on top of the hurricanes that devastated the island two years ago, from which many rural areas have yet to recover.

Division III doesn’t have many players who come directly from Puerto Rico, but the diaspora is vast, of course, with many players and coaches strongly connected to the island and worried about family there.

In the face of disaster, it’s important to remember that media coverage is just a conglomeration of many individual stories. I asked each player I spoke with how the media coverage differs from their understanding of the situation from personal contact.

Colton answered: “It’s easy, with any tragedy that occurs somewhere else, to forget it could happen here as well. It’s immediate and real for us [in Australia], but it’s worth noting that these tragedies could happen anywhere – even in the U.S. – and they can happen to anyone. No one back home is any different than the people I interact with here.”

“It’s not just animals,” says Storer. “Caring for the animals is important, but U.S. media hasn’t put much focus on the people displaced and those who’ve lost their lives in these fires.”

Nehma notes: “People around the world have been so generous, but there are also a lot of people scamming donations – make sure you’re giving to reputable places.”

In the midst of fire coverage, there’s been much talk about how climate change contributes to these and other disasters, a topic that can be so partisan and divisive around the world. It’s important to note how Australian politicians have managed to maintain differences of opinion without sacrificing the unity necessary to tackle such a monumental problem.

“I don’t want to get into the politics of it,” says Storer. “Regardless of how you view climate change, living a more sustainable life is something everyone can do.”

Australian basketball players are known to be tough. It is a rugged country with a rugged history and it’s reflected in sport. As we see more and more Division III players arriving from “down under,” there’s a real appreciation for the unique skills and abilities they bring with them. It’s at times like this where we can see that style of play as a reflection of the larger Australian culture.

Storer sums it up well: “They call us the Australian Battlers. As a people, we’ve always been underdogs in everything, but we’re able to stick together and fight for each other and for what we believe in. There are so many people out there working together and doing good. I’m very proud of Australia right now.”

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank and recognize the contributions of Chelsie Schweers, a CNU alum currently playing professionally in Australia, and of Andrew Fitch, a SUNY-Canton player whose family lived in Australia during his teenage years and who remains a passionate advocate for the country. They were both helpful in shaping my understanding of the story, even if they were not directly quoted.

[Click here to read full column]


Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon


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