SYDNEY - At least 15 people, reportedly backpackers from Japan and South Korea "living in squalor" in minibuses, a shipping container and a caravan, had to be rescued from a raging Sydney fire Wednesday.
New South Wales Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins said firefighters were shocked to find people living at the industrial site when they were called to the large inner-city blaze in the early hours of the morning.
The group were reportedly in their late teens and early 20s and from Japan and South Korea, although a New South Wales police spokeswoman could not confirm their identities.
"When (firefighters) arrived they thought they had a normal industrial fire, but within a couple of minutes it became a rescue operation," Mullins told reporters.
"They were living in squalor. There were beds in old minibuses, a shipping container and an old caravan with a massive fire moving towards them.
"The firefighters had to shield the people from the heat to get them to safety. They were too frightened to move. There were 20-metre flames." NSW Fire and Rescue Superintendent Ian Krimmer told AFP 80 firefighters spent several hours battling the blaze before it was put out.
He said investigators were still trying to determine how it started, adding that initial reports suggested it began at a building next to the makeshift accommodation.
Mullins said the group could have died if firefighters had not spotted them, and he was "outraged that there would be something like this in the heart of Sydney".
"It looks like somebody's been taking advantage of these people," he said.
"I have no idea whether this was a for-profit operation, whether it was family or whether it was people squatting, but if it was for profit there are penalties that can apply." A Sydney council spokeswoman said they were looking into whether the property was being used illegally for accommodation.