Helping Hands: How Jason Belmonte and Others are Injecting Hope into the Hell of Australia’s Devastating Fires

by Gianmarc Manzione 0

BY DENNIS BERGENDORF

Helping Hands: Jason Belmonte, who has been actively raising money for fire relief in his native Australia, said that, at the height of the fires in Orange, Australia, “A single breath of air was equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes.”

The first fire began in late October with a lightning strike on Gospers Mountain, less than 80 miles from the home of Jason Belmonte in New South Wales. The blaze quickly spread through the bone-dry Eucalyptus trees, easily overwhelming initial attempts to suppress it. Within days, officials were calling it a megafire, an inferno that would ultimately consume more than a million acres.

By now, we know what has happened to Australia, how fires like Gospers Mountain have merged to form the worst conflagration in Aussie history, destroying thousands of homes and businesses and killing at least 35 people as well as animals by the tens of millions, while devastating over 70,000 square miles of natural resources and habitat.

What we may not know is that bowlers are among those who are affected, and among those who are helping with relief efforts.

Australian bowling standout and reigning QubicaAMF World Cup champion Bec Whiting helped set up shelters in the town of Sale near Australia's southern coast and said, "At times it is a struggle to breathe. When I was down at the relief center we had to wear a face mask the whole time because it was super hard to breathe."

Belmonte, as well as international bowlers Bec Whiting and Sam Cooley, all live within a short drive of the fires, but as of early February they had not been directly threatened by the flames. (A month ago, a small fire broke out near the town of Euchareena, about 20 miles from Belmonte’s home in Orange, but it was quickly extinguished.)

Cooley lives in the town of Mt. Warrigal on the Pacific Coast and said, “The fires are predominantly north of us, west of us and south of us. We’re kind of in the middle, but we’re not being affected currently.” No, but in early February a blaze broke out some 30 miles away and another about 45 miles away. Both were quickly brought under control.

For these bowlers, the problem has been the dense smoke that covered parts of Australia like a blanket, and made breathing difficult and even dangerous. “There were reports,” said Belmonte, “that during the heaviest amount of fire we had [in New South Wales], Orange was the most polluted town in the state. A single breath of air was equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes.”

Whiting is an events coordinator in the City of Casey (it’s similar to an American county) and helped set up two shelters in the town of Sale near Australia’s southern coast. She estimated that she was about 55 miles from the fire zone, but that distance provided no protection from the smoke. In an email to BJI in mid-January, she wrote: “At times it is a struggle to breath. When I was down at the relief center we had to wear a face mask the whole time as it was super hard to breathe.”

There was one report that at the height of the summer season down under, several thousand lifeguards were prevented from doing their jobs because they couldn’t even see the ocean from their towers.

For hundreds of thousands of Australians, the disaster has been more than smoke. One resident of rural Canberra was quoted as saying that as the fire approached, she and her family tried to keep her mother’s house from burning, but gave up to make a hasty retreat to the beach at Mallacoota. There she joined hundreds who were trapped in an encampment, until they boarded small boats to be shuttled to an Australian Navy vessel.

For some, the only space was on the boats. One woman related how she sat for hours with three others and her sister’s Dalmatian puppy. From the water they could see the

Pyrocumulus (fire cloud) closing in, while hearing explosions that were either thunder, buildings bursting, or trees toppling.

That Dalmatian was one of the lucky ones. We’ve seen the horrifying images of charred wildlife, and of herds of kangaroos bounding ahead of advancing flames, while we knew the flames would ultimately win. Numerous pets and livestock had to be left behind as residents made desperate dashes to safety.

Nathan Shapter, the brother of Belmonte’s wife Kimberly, was forced to evacuate, along with his family, “but his home was saved and he’s back there now,” Belmonte said. But that situation is subject to change, as some of the fires raged on.

“Anybody I know has not lost family members,” added Belmonte. “But I have seen a little bit of property that has been destroyed or damaged. But if that is the worst case, that is okay. We just don’t want to lose anyone.”

Sam Cooley lives in the town of Mt. Warrigal on the Pacific Coast of Australia and said, “The fires are predominantly north of us, west of us and south of us. We’re kind of in the middle, but we’re not being affected currently.”

Belmonte, Kimberly and the three kids (Aria, Hugo, and Sylvie) did not have to evacuate, but the family has been ready. “We have plans for where we would go and where we’d all meet if a dramatic fire were to happen. We do have personal belongings that are sentimental to us in a to-go bag. If it happens we are to some degree prepared.”

Belmonte says his children had a hard time understanding the magnitude of the disaster at first, with one of them saying, “Why don’t they just put the fires out?” He and Kimberly tried explain, but, “You don’t want to scare them. It’s hard to explain why people are losing everything and how the fires start and how you put them out.”

Australia has been in a severe drought for several years, and most of the country has been on some sort of water use restriction. Belmonte finds it amusing that the kids are enforcing the rules, making sure showers take no longer than three minutes. “They knock on the door after two minutes and 45 seconds, saying, ‘Get out!’” Of course, what’s being called the Black Summer is no laughing matter.

As of early February, there were no reports of bowling centers destroyed by flames, but the Stansbury Lawn Bowling Club (just north of the imperiled Kangaroo Island), was being used as an evacuee shelter.

The lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians have been devastated by the brushfires, and no doubt a lot of them are bowlers, albeit less famous than Belmonte, Whiting and Cooley. That’s just one more reason the bowling world is coming to the aid of this beleaguered country.

HOW YOU CAN HELP
In an effort to help disaster relief, Jason and Kimberly Belmonte came up with “Two Hands for Australia,” in which he’d donate to the Australian Red Cross $50 for every strike he rolls on a televised stepladder ($100 in the title game). “I thought, ‘Why not create a little bit more awareness internationally, by doing something with the PBA tour?’”

But then he realized “there are no guarantees that I’ll make television.” So he decided to use his “platform to raise more using the bowling community as a way to help.” And the GoFundMe campaign was born, allowing bowlers (and anyone else) to join in with donations large and small.

Large? Storm Products CEO Bill Chrisman is putting in a whopping $100,000 through his Chrisman Foundation. “I have a few Australian bowlers [on staff], he said. But it’s also to ease the suffering, both human and animal. “I think it’s a good cause. It’s the humane thing to do.”

The PBA and Bowlero Corp have pledged $10,000. At first, they planned to match Belmo’s dollars-for-strikes, but CEO Colie Edison agreed that there’s no guarantee that he’ll be on every show. “We wanted to make sure our donation would go far.”

Ace Mitchell Bowlers Mart contributed $2,309, and other identifiable bowlers and industry folks have donated anywhere from $1,000 down to $5. The goal is $150,000.  

Oh, those seven strikes Belmonte threw in the Jonesboro Open stepladder? They were worth $350, which went straight into the GoFundMe campaign. There will be more.

Donations can be made at gofundme.com/f/2handshelpingaustralia.

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