A Balgownie home consumed by fire late Sunday was a site of extreme squalor, according to neighbours.
Residents of Tucker Avenue public housing complex say several children once lived at the address with their mother.
The fire moved rapidly through the townhouse and reached such intensity it caused windows to explode and an entire brick wall to bow and collapse within 30 minutes of firefighters arriving.
Fire investigators sent a drone into the air over the public housing property Monday morning to observe the extent of structural damage, as inquiries into the cause of the blaze get underway.
A family of Burmese refugees was among two neighbouring households evacuated shortly after 11pm as the fire threatened their adjoining homes. Twenty-two year old Mee Chee Htoo grabbed her two-year-old baby Jack and a bag before fleeing with her mother, Ma Aye Yee and teenager sister, Mi Kaai Aye Yee.
“I was very, very scared and very nervous,” Ms Htoo said. “I thought the fire would jump to my house. I saw the fire was going out the [windows]– the glass was like ‘boom, boom’."
The family is awaiting the all-clear from authorities before they can return to their home.
Police have declared the site a crime scene.
It took authorities some time to confirm no one was inside the blazing townhouse.
Firefighters then went into defensive operations, focused on protecting adjoining townhouses, said Fire and Rescue NSW Inspector Jay Bland, Illawarra duty commander.
Fire crews from Balgownie, Wollongong, Corrimal and Bulli attended, as well as an aerial ladder platform and a hazardous material crew from Shellahrbour, which was tasked with monitoring air quality.
A ruptured sewer pipe at one stage posed an environmental threat – since resolved – of sewage running into waterways.
“The fire was rapidly moving and very intense,” Insp Bland said.
“Firefighters noticed there was a bulge in one of the brick walls, and an exclusion zone was put in place. The wall came down only approximately 30 minutes after the arrival of firefighters.”
Neighbours hosed down adjoining property and ran door-to-door to alert one another to the threat.
All adjoining properties were spared.
One resident described the home at the centre of the blaze as in a state of “more than squalor”. She said a woman living at the home was once responsible for a large pile of rubbish in the street.
“It was in front of my house – but it was hers. I have no idea where she brought the rubbish from,” she said.
Another neighbour said she had observed skip bins being delivered to the home in the past.
The Mercury understands the bins were paid for by a government department, as part of their efforts to get the home into a sanitary state.
“Every couple of weeks she’d have one of those skip bins and fill it with rubbish," the neighbour said.
“When you walk past [the home] – the smell. They always had the big bin in there, and smells.”
Neighbours say they haven’t seen the woman recently, but a lot of teenagers have been coming and going from the home.
Another resident, Ann Siljanovski, said many residents observed the spectacle of Sunday’s blaze with their camera phones rolling.
“It was horrific, the explosions," she said. “It literally sounded like gunshots. Big, cracking, noises. The flames were huge.”
“We heard a lot of screaming last night and it set all the dogs off up the street.
“Everyone just had their phones out, to be honest.”