Fire investigators are examining whether embers from a backyard fire bucket whipped up by gusty winds sparked a blaze that destroyed two homes and damaged another at Coalcliff on Friday night.
Twenty fire crews from stations across the Illawarra and southern Sydney fought for about 90 minutes to tackle the inferno, which broke out just before 7.30pm.
The fire, fanned by wind gusts of up to 70km/h, ripped through the two properties on Lawrence Hargrave Drive and damaged a third. A boat and car were also destroyed.
Daylight on Saturday morning revealed the fire’s intensity – the ocean could clearly be seen from where the two homes once stood; a brick chimney the remaining structure still intact.
A witness, one of the first on the scene, told the Mercury he and his brother were returning from dinner when they saw a glow on the escarpment from their Paterson Road home.
At first they thought it was a bonfire until the wind picked up and they realised it was more serious. The young man, who chose to remain anonymous, and his family rushed up the hill and tried to fight the fire with garden hoses, but they couldn’t get enough water pressure. Fire crews arrived shortly after.
Beth Parker, who lived a few doors up with her partner, was concerned the gusty winds would make the fire spread further. “We had a neighbour knock on the door say there was a fire and we needed to get out of the house,” Ms Parker said.
“When we came out the whole sky was just burning. It was like, ‘oh my god, this is something you see on the movies’.
“We literally grabbed the dog and our car keys and left the house … it’s just heartbreaking, the poor people that have lost everything.”
Multiple triple zero calls alerted emergency services to the blaze. Fire and Rescue NSW duty commander Inspector Jay Bland said the first crews on scene were met with “a really difficult situation”. “We had one house fully involved in fire and we had prevailing winds that were in excess of 50km/h that were causing the fire to spread to adjoining properties,” Inspector Bland said.
Wind gusts of 70km/h were recorded at Bellambi during the fire fight. Firefighters were also faced with exploding gas cylinders and live power mains, which had to be isolated. A 200-metre exclusion zone was set up and 16 people evacuated.
The fire prompted a multi-agency response with the Rural Fire Service helping supply water. “I can’t praise the firefighters’ actions highly enough. They prevented this fire from spreading to other properties and they should be commended for that,” Inspector Bland said.
Investigations into the cause of the fire are ongoing.