A judge has praised the heroic efforts of a man who ran into a burning house to rescue a woman who was refusing to leave.

Audrey Bell set her own home alight before sitting down on the sofa and smoking a cigarette while her Darlington house filled with smoke and flames.

The 63-year-old was later found wandering naked in the streets as the emergency services rushed to the scene to prevent the fire from spreading to neighbouring properties on Prescott Street.

Teesside Crown Court heard how Bell's neighbour was woken up by a commotion outside the house and when he saw that Bell's house was on fire upstairs, he went in to try and save her.

Recorder Peter Makepeace KC praised the neighbour’s heroics as he sentenced Bell to 30-months in custody.

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He said the man’s "bravery and outstanding public spirited conduct" probably saved Bell's life when he carried her out of the burning building.

"The risk to this man entering that house - was extremely high. The risk to neighbours from the fire - was extremely high,” he said as he asked that the man be awarded £100.

Paul Abrahams, prosecuting, said Bell had deliberately started the fire in the bedroom of her terraced home before sitting down and letting the blaze spread.

He said firefighters found Bell wandering around the street while naked after leaving her neighbour’s home in the early hours of June 15 this year.

Bell, of Prescott Street in Darlington, pleaded guilty to one count of arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered.

The court heard that she has similar previous convictions, including when she set fire to some leaflets at Darlington police station and while she was living in Hartlepool when she set fire to a pile of dry leaves that she brought inside.

Simon Perkins, in mitigation, said that a psychiatrist's report found that his client suffers from depression, personality disorders and substance misuse.

The Northern Echo: Audrey Bell. Picture: DURHAM CONSTABULARYAudrey Bell. Picture: DURHAM CONSTABULARY (Image: Durham Constabulary)

He told the judge that her actions were a ‘cry for help’ and her grandson had tried unsuccessfully to get support for her as her mental health deteriorated.

Passing sentence, the judge said: “Your neighbour went into your home, despite the fact that the downstairs of your home was clearly engulfed in heavy black smoke and an established fire was taking place upstairs.

“You were laid on the sofa in the living room smoking and apparently oblivious to the fire that was raging upstairs.”

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