Two families had to flee their homes after a man started a fire to “scare” a resident living in one of the properties.

Christopher Nairns bought petrol at a nearby filling station and was seen on CCTV acting furtively in the vicinity of the targeted homes, in Attlee Avenue, Blackhall Colliery, in the early hours of July 12, last year.

Durham Crown Court was told a woman living in one of the terraced houses was awoken by her daughter telling her their house was on fire.

The Northern Echo: Christopher Nairns jailed for 61 months for starting fire which led to two families evacuating

She went downstairs and saw flames coming under the door, so the mother-of-four got her children, one registered blind, out of the house, but struggled to regain entry to retrieve her pet dog due to the thick smoke.

Chris Baker, prosecuting, said the house was completely in flames and, as the fire began to spread to the adjoining home, she screamed to alert her neighbours.

Mr Baker said the house which was the seat of the fire was so badly damaged the family were unable to return and it will have to be demolished.

The woman living next door with her two children, who was in the throes of trying to buy their property from a housing association, had to move out and has since been living at the home of her father.

As a result, he has been living in a caravan outside his home in the six months since the incident.

The Northern Echo:

Mr Baker said the upshot is that two families have suffered major upheaval to their lives in the wake of the fire.

The woman living in the targeted home was said to be too distressed to provide the court with a victim statement, while her neighbour said she could not believe the ongoing trauma was caused, “by someone’s stupidity”.

Mr Baker said when CCTV was examined and Nairns’ suspicious movements that night, including buying a canister of petrol from a nearby filling station, became apparent, he was arrested.

While he initially admitted having bought the petrol, he denied starting the fire.

The now 27-year-old defendant, of Seventh Street, Blackhall Colliery, denied charges of arson with intent to endanger life and arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered at a plea hearing on August 25.

A date for trial was fixed for last month, but, at a hearing at the court, in December, Cairns changed his pleas and admitted both arson charges.

His counsel, Paul Cleasby, said the defendant now fully admits what he did, only disputing that it was, “an act of revenge”.

But Mr Cleasby said the defendant did concede he was having, “significant trouble” with the son of the woman living at the targeted property, who the court heard was not present at the time of the arson attack.

“He wanted to frighten the occupants, by setting fire to the front door, and was unaware of how many people were in the house.”

Mr Cleasby said the offence was committed in the context of the defendant having kept out of trouble for three-and-a-half years.

But he said most of Nairns’ more serious previous offending was committed in his much younger days.

Mr Cleasby said the defendant is on medication for a form of epilepsy which forced him to leave a previous bricklaying job, following a fit at work.

But he said it led to the defendant turning to drink and drugs which, combined with an unsteady personality disorder and ADHD, led him to be referred to a mental health team for additional support.

Mr Cleasby said the defendant is anxious to take advantage of the support available to him in the prison system.

He added: “The defendant bitterly regrets his actions and it’s a relief to him that no-one was physically hurt by anything he has done.

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“He will have a long time to reflect on his actions that night.”

Judge Jo Kidd said the defendant was under the influence of drink and drugs, and despite his claim, in her eyes, “it could rightly be described as a revenge attack.”

Imposing a 61-month prison sentence (five years and one month), she told Nairns his behaviour has had, “a significant impact and financial burden” on the two families affected.