AN arsonist could have put the lives of his former partner and one of her children at risk had petrol-fuelled flames taken hold on her front door.

Neighbours saw a drunken John Prest staggering around outside the woman’s home dousing petrol from a jerry can near the door, before igniting it with a lighter.

Durham Crown Court heard it was reported to police by several people that he had set fire to the front of the house in Seaham, shortly before 7.30pm on November 21.

Jane Foley, prosecuting, said Prest’s former partner lived at the address with her two children, although only one was present at the time.

Bystanders tried to get to the door to extinguish the flames and by the time emergency services arrived they had almost petered out.

Miss Foley said while police and fire officers were investigating, calming the “shaken and upset” householder and her daughter, Prest, who had left, returned and let himself in via the back door.

Officers said he appeared “paralytically drunk”, smelling strongly of petrol.

He was arrested and was abusive to police, while in his subsequent interview he exercised his right to silence.

It was established that he bought the can and £4.32 of petrol at a nearby filling station earlier that evening.

The attendant formed the opinion he was drunk, as he was spilling petrol.

Receipts for both the can and petrol were found on him when he was arrested.

Prest, 34, of Eastlea Crescent, Seaham, admitted arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered.

Martin Scarborough, in mitigation, said the couple argued earlier that day by the time it was committed, he was, “clearly intoxicated”.

“Thankfully, it would appear the fire went out fairly quickly, but it was reckless.

“He acknowledges it was serious and he posed the risk of it being so much worse.

Mr Scarborough said although Prest has seven convictions for nine past offences, he had kept out of trouble for , “a period of time”.

Judge Ray Singh told Prest: “I have no doubt you are a dangerous offender as you pose a significant risk of causing harm to others by the commission of further specified offences.

“In my view there was a high risk of very serious physical harm if that property caught fire, a risk you were prepared to take. It could have been catastrophic.”

He imposed a four-year sentence, but with an extended three-year licence period.

Prest must serve at least two-thirds of the four-year custodial element before being eligible for parole.

A seven-year restraining order forbids him from contacting his former partner.