Andrew Constance contemplated his fate three times as a fatal inferno roared towards Malua Bay on the NSW south coast.
Andrew Constance contemplated his fate three times as a fatal inferno roared towards Malua Bay on the NSW south coast.

‘The day I almost died three times’

None of us know exactly when we will die and most people are blissfully ignorant about how they will shuffle off this mortal coil.

A bit over two months ago, NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance thought he had found the answers to both.

New Year's Eve morning, 2019 and in an inferno.

The repercussions of the shock are still revealing themselves to Constance.

Daily life is hard.

The funerals are over, the blackened grass has turned neon green after a deluge finally extinguished the fires which had taunted the south coast for months and visitors are starting to trickle back but seared in Constance's memory is the day he nearly died.

Not just once but he recounts three times he thought his number was up.

The first, as he stepped outside his Malua Bay home into a hellfire.

The beige weatherboard country-style house with white windows sits on the side of a ridge overlooking a grass paddock, an overgrown creek below. When a blast of superheated air followed by towering flames galloped through the creek on New Year's Eve morning, the state's transport minister was in the firing line.

For hours he had emptied 5000L of water on the house walls and grass surrounds thinking he could stay and defend. The ground around the perimeter became "like walking into a sponge."

Andrew Constance as fire approaches on his property on December 31, 2019. Picture: Supplied
Andrew Constance as fire approaches on his property on December 31, 2019. Picture: Supplied

He told The Daily Telegraph's new podcast Mates Under Fire, which documents the fight for survival in and around Malua Bay on New Year's Eve, the growing inferno first showed itself via a crackle in the distance, "like twigs burning." Constance recalls the animals "were behaving weirdly … the roos, the wallabies, they were all fairly highly agitated."

"The Fires Near Me app showed this awful finger sort of stretch off what became known as the Clyde Mountain Fire but had been known as the Currowan fire for weeks and it was just sort of this awful finger pointing at this blue dot and the blue dot was where I was standing," he says.

I felt incredibly lonely

By the time the wall of flames arrived in Constance's normally sleepy lane in the pretty tree-lined hills behind stunning Malua Bay it was roaring like a jet engine.

Constance is tormented by the loneliness. It was mid-morning, he had been up battling fires at his home and also that of his parents-in-law almost 30km away at Nelligen since 3.30am.

The phone towers were gone so there was no way to ring his wife Jen and her children, who were sheltering on the waterfront at Batehaven just to the north.

The finger of fire that Andrew Constance describes as pointing at him on the day. Picture: Supplied
The finger of fire that Andrew Constance describes as pointing at him on the day. Picture: Supplied

In typical circumstances it would be a quick 15-minute drive to reunite.

Instead they were totally isolated. His world appeared to be ending and Jen was having a hard time too, not least because Sky was reporting her husband was missing. Without phones no one could prove otherwise.

Jen was safe but she was surrounded by choking smoke and the grim sounds of gas bottles exploding as homes burned around her and the kids.

Constance was unaware of rumours of his potential demise - he was still locked in a life-and-death battle at home.

"When Jen left we didn't even say goodbye," Constance says flatly.

"I had been up to that point so worried sick I wanted everyone gone."

But then they were gone and the loneliness is what has left him "cut up the most".

"I felt incredibly lonely," he says.

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He was questioning in his mind why the fire was going to hit in the morning. In all his weeks of planning, he had imagined it would build to an afternoon/early evening crescendo.

There were good decisions in the lead-up to New Year's - he had bought a fire pump, lengthened his hose from 20m to 50m ("probably the best decision I've ever made") and he had been obsessively raking black wattle near his driveway all the while thinking he was "nuts."

All in preparation for this moment.

Constance surrounded by blackened ground in the fire aftermath.
Constance surrounded by blackened ground in the fire aftermath.

"The wind hit and it was like a heatwave that had just beamed up the valley. I reckon the temperature went up 20C at that point," he says.

"I had driven up the street, just for my own mind, thinking 'yeah, I'll go' and then I drove back down to the house to give it one last go. At that point I made my mind up. The heatwave just kept getting … I honestly thought I was going to melt."

There marks the first time he thought death was coming and then a brief moment of phone reception brought some grim news.

"I went back inside and thought maybe I could stay here and be OK then I walked back out again and I thought 'nah, that's it, I am going.' Tore up the lane and very sadly as I was driving out had a phone call from Gladys. She told me Robert and Patrick Salway had passed away that morning and then I knew things were really bad.

"The Salway family had been a very big and highly regarded family from Cobargo and I then said to Gladys 'hey, I've got to go because I am trying to get away from a fire.'"

Weeks later Constance would drive the route all the while recounting the point on the road he thought he might die. The roads are narrow, the trees so close to the sides you could almost touch them out the window.

When he says he was worried for his life, it is understandable - they are exactly the sort of roads where fire claimed some of the seven lives lost on the south coast that awful morning.

Locals shelter on Malua Bay beach on New Year’s Eve. Picture: Alex Coppel.
Locals shelter on Malua Bay beach on New Year’s Eve. Picture: Alex Coppel.
The mongrel of a thing turned black

"At one point at the top of our lane I had to make a decision whether to go right or left. Turning right I thought if I go that way I won't be with Jen and the kids so I opted left, which took me even closer to the front," he says.

"When I left, the roar of it, the wind, the heat and the smoke … and to be taking that phone call at that point. When I turned right into the Ridge Rd and down to Malua Bay and suburbia I had this huge sense of relief."

He came across a line of newish homes in a small estate between the hilltops and the beach. He recalls helping a family backing their car out, hosing down a home and telling incredulous locals to get to the beach.

Watching the inferno just south of Batemans Bay. Picture: Alex Coppel.
Watching the inferno just south of Batemans Bay. Picture: Alex Coppel.


He reached the Malua Bay Surf Club to find more than 1000 people "scared for their lives".

There were no fire trucks or police, just surf life savers whose communication had been cut, but they had stepped into the breach and had begun saving lives on land.

"At that point I knew Malua Bay was just going to explode," Constance says.

"There was just way too many people there. They knew that they were in survival mode and they were scared for their life.

"We could start to hear the explosions. You feel sort of helpless at that point. You could just get a sense everyone was sitting there going 'why, why is this happening.'

"It was just very hard, we had people choking on the smoke, everyone was just terrified.

Constance with wife Jen.
Constance with wife Jen.

"And then something really weird happened. Despite the fact that it was dark and smoky, the mongrel of a thing turned black, it just turned black."

He contemplated his fate for a third time.

The southerly drove the flames back at the throng on the beach before the threat finally lifted.

Constance made his way back to his house. The idyllic valley he loved was now a smoke-filled, blackened moonscape, his neighbours' homes burning all around him.

In Malua Bay, 90 homes were razed.

"I could see my place was still standing. I thought holy hell how did that happen?" he says.

"The only problem was the whole of the garden right up to the veranda was alight, a lot of flames. The back gate was alight and yeah she was on fire. Anyway, I just tore around, got the pump started and then for the next seven to eight hours kept putting fires out."

Later, neighbour and volunteer firefighter Steve Hillyar returned. The fire overshot Constance's home and claimed Hillyar's.

The firey and his wife Mandy represent the best of Australians.

He spent 24 hours up to the moment he returned home fighting fires with the RFS. No one in town can speak highly enough of Mandy or their three daughters.

"He pulled up in his ute, he was in his RFS uniform, his own truck had been melted because it had been at the back of Malua Bay fire shed and that had the fire storm come through and all I remember him saying is 'this is just so unfair'.

"I said 'hey, do you want to have a beer before you go?'.

"He said 'I have to go and tell Mandy and the kids.' He gathered up the chooks and he said: 'I can't believe the animals survived.'

"We probably drank the beer fairly quickly at that point and threw the bottles in Jen's garden. Those bottles were discovered the next day by the Premier and (RFS Commissioner) Shane Fitzsimmons. That was pretty funny. They asked me if I had a problem and I said: 'yeah there was a problem all right.'"

When the tears have come in public it has been when Constance has spoken of Hillyar or others like him.

I had this huge sense of relief

There are more than 900 families now homeless in Constance's state electorate of Bega.

Constance talks about helping drive the best recovery possible, and in turn people have flocked to him for support.

Before the fires Constance's public persona was that of the serious, some might say cranky, transport minister. For those who have known him for many years the empathy and kindness he has shown in the past two months have always been there but have rarely been on public display.

1000 people waiting … Picture: Alex Coppel.
1000 people waiting … Picture: Alex Coppel.

Now, as we follow him around his electorate it is obvious survivors of the summer fire cataclysm are looking to him to draw strength.

From the elderly lady who pulled him aside to thank him at Tomakin Sports Club while a small crowd watched the Fire Fight concert last month to the woman who shouted out from her table at Mogo's Grump and Sweetheart's cafe that he had worked too hard and he should have a holiday.

Some wag suggested he avoid the Prime Minister's pre-Christmas break location of Hawaii. The cafe erupted in cheers and clapping.

Much of that can be attributed to the criticism Constance meted out to Scott Morrison on morning television soon after the fires.

He was pleading for the Commonwealth to open the coffers to help the south coast begin its recovery.

His call was answered days later when Mr Morrison pledged $2 billion as a start.

It's too soon to know what Constance's future holds. Late trains and light rail hiccups in Sydney seem a trifling problem now given the scale of the losses and heartache in his electorate.

He bats away speculation about his future, whether he may one day run for federal parliament.

People in Bega are only connecting sensible dots of where he may be of most help to them, but for now he is totally focused on the recovery.

And, as he openly admits in a bid to encourage others to also seek help, time on the trauma counsellor's couch beckons.

On the Constance family deck as fire raged in the area. Picture: Supplied
On the Constance family deck as fire raged in the area. Picture: Supplied

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