THE fire that destroyed a South Lismore home in a raging inferno on Wednesday night is being investigated as suspicious by police.
The residence, home to a middle-aged woman who did extensive renovations after buying the property 15 years ago, lay gutted and empty yesterday as police cars guarded the scene and a stream of onlookers stopped to stare.
Police and witnesses said the fire began about midnight on Wednesday evening and had inflicted much of its damage within minutes.
Twenty neighbouring residents were evacuated by firefighters and police due to the threat of nearby gas cylinders exploding, and burning high voltage power cables.
About 25 firefighters battled the blaze for about three hours, in which a neighbouring car yard also suffered damages. A Hazmat unit was also called in.
"We couldn't do much about the first building as the fire had already breached it when we arrived and was onto the shed with the cars..." said Lismore Fire Captain Brett Lowden.The job was pretty intense... The crews did a really good job."
Witnesses yesterday described being woken just before midnight by loud "banging and popping noises" coming from the property.
Cheryl Thomson, who lives diagonally opposite, ran outside and checked that the owner was awake before calling 000. She described an intense fire with flames at least the height of a telegraph pole.
"The house was wrecked within 14 minutes," she said.
Another neighbour Stuart Carruth was awake when he heard the "unusual pops", and was first on the scene after hearing the owner's cries for help. The owner, naked and distressed, asked Mr Carruth to look for her dog, a six-month-old Alsatian.
"I jumped over the gate and we had a scout around, but couldn't find the dog," he said. The puppy was found several minutes later.
Cabinet maker Dick Morrissey, who has been building kitchens from his workshop on Wilson St opposite the house since 1968, said he knew the owner well and had watched her rejuvenate what was once a virtually abandoned property during her 15 year ownership.
After speaking with the owner yesterday morning he said she was "totally devastated".
"She had beautiful polished floors, she put in solar panels... all out of her own pocket," he said.
Mr Morrissey even made the timber bench tops which sat in the home's kitchen with timber supplied by the owner.
"There would be nothing you could salvage in there... just gone," said Mr Morrissey.