Douglas Greening was chatting with a neighbour outside his Turramurra home when he heard the bushes crackling.
A glance up at the thick scrub that surrounds the affluent Sydney suburb told him all he needed to know.
The bushfires had come to Sydney, on the worst possible day – a day of catastrophic fire danger.
“We looked up and rang triple-0 straight away,” Greening told Guardian Australia.
Within minutes, police were on scene. They would soon confirm multiple fires in the area were being treated as suspicious.
The pumpers weren’t far behind.
Greening has been through three fires in his 28 years in Turramurra. None were as ferocious. He says he could feel the heat from the towering flames hot against his face.
“I had nerves, because if you go up the road you’ll see it’s gone up 100ft in the air,” Greening said.
“It got very high and it spread very, very quickly. Not long after the firies got here the wind got up.
“Hot wind, low humidity, high heat. Not a great recipe.”
The fire was quickly raised to emergency level. Pumpers worked from the ground to prevent it reaching homes as helicopters bombed the area with a pink-coloured retardant, hitting burning scrubland and multimillion dollar homes in equal measure.
It left an otherworldly scene, a cross between Willy Wonka and War of the Worlds. Bright pink houses and utes sat next to blackened bushland, as the lowering sun gave a golden glow to thick smoke haze overhead.
Greening spoke to the Guardian outside his home, one of the closest to the fire of any in the neighbourhood. He joked he should be charging rent to the waiting media pack camped out the front of his house.
Mid-conversation, a council truck rolled past. “Right on time,” he called out, to laughter from a couple of nearby neighbours.
Greening, like others in the neighbourhood, is frustrated at the lack of hazard reduction work in the bushland now reduced to blackened scrub. Locals say it’s been years since anyone has reduced fuel in the spot where the fire took hold.
But the residents were well prepared. Geoff Bird lives on Canoon Road, not far from Greening. His children’s school had been closed in anticipation of fires like this.
When Bird saw the fire closest to his house, he immediately packed up, got his wife and kids out, and stayed to monitor the situation.
“I was in my backyard and saw the first plume of smoke and all the firies coming down the road. So I knew something had happened,” he told the Guardian.
“Within half an hour of that I was inside watching the news, keeping an eye on things, and then could smell the smoke and came out to see where it is.
“From there it was a matter of packing up valuable things, we activated our fire plan, so we were ready to go, evacuated my wife and children, and then I stayed and kept a close eye on things.”
Residents of South Turramurra were in some ways happy the bushfire broke out on their street when it did.
Primed for the catastrophic day in Sydney and already responding to small fires nearby, it took what felt like just moments for firetrucks to arrive on the scene, and waterbombing aircraft to appear overhead.
Cynthia Lush was home alone in her house across the street.
“We got a phone call about half an hour [after it started] on the home phones ... I could hear the sirens, that’s what alerted me, then I popped my head out and they said no get inside.”
The fire took off into an emergency level blaze extraordinarily quickly, witnesses said.
Around 4pm residents started receiving messages that it was too late to leave and they had to take shelter.
An aircraft assigned elsewhere was diverted to the leafy suburb, dropping bright pink fire retardant on the houses.
“Clearly it’s not only hit the mark of the fire, but extended into the road and we’ve got crews, we’ve got vehicles, we’ve got homes, we’ve got property that is now coloured pink,” said the Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons.
“There are guidelines available about hosing it down.”
One firefighter was apparently injured with a fractured arm and suspected fractured rib, Fitzsimmons said.
He said the firefighters were working on two fires simultaneously at one stage.
“They seemed to come out of nowhere,” he said.
Brian Wilson wasn’t remotely worried. Guardian Australia found him sitting in an outdoor chair in front of his garage, looking across the road where his neighbours’ houses were drenched in bright pink fire retardant.
“We’ve had a couple [of fires], but everybody wants to run around. I’m quite happy to just sit here and watch them do it,” he said.
“I’m on the wrong side of the hill, it blows the embers over us. Everybody panics, there’s no point.”
Four fires in the same area of bush were detected within minutes of each other, prompting widespread suspicion. Police said a crime scene had been established and the cause of the blaze was under investigation, but it was too soon to speculate.