Two homes worth £700,000 have been completely destroyed by fire – after a faulty lamp in a tortoise enclosure burst into flames.
An elderly lady and a family of four have been left homeless after the blaze set fire to wooden decking behind one of their homes before spreading to the house next door.
The devastating blaze ripped through the semi-detached houses in Rayleigh, Essex in the early hours of Monday (June 4).
One neighbour, who witnessed the inferno, Keith Leedham, said: “The tortoise enclosure had a heat lamp and was on wooden decking which caught a light and straight away spread to the house.
“I can’t understand why someone would need a heat lamp for tortoises in this heat, anyway but I am sure the tortoises were killed by the fire.
“I could not believe it was happening.”
Firefighters battled the blaze for more than two hours while the family with two young children and the elderly lady watched from their neighbour’s home.
Mr Leedham described how the small fire from the heat lamp went on to engulf the two homes.
He added: “I thought someone was breaking in because I could hear a loud cracking noise.
“I got up at about 2.50am and looked out to their garden and saw a part of the was alight. The heat was incredible. I was surprised how strong it was from where we were.”
Mr Leedham called the fire service who were already on their way.
The 71-year-old, who’s house backs onto the houses wrecked by fire, added: “It was horrendous. I can’t believe how quickly it spread. You can’t help but feel for the families involved and wonder what they are going to do now because they have lost everything.
“The woman lives on her own and the people next door were very new to the area.
“The roof was completely burned off their house after the firefighters absolutely ploughed it with so much water but the damage was done.
“The elderly lady is absolutely distraught. She lives on her own and I think the house has been completely destroyed and it wasn’t her house that the fire even started in.”
Firefighters extinguished the flames shortly after 5am.
Another neighbour, a James Needham, aged 73, added: “We brought the devastated people in and made them some tea. Watching your home burn like that must be a terrible thing to watch. ”
Watch manager Mark Taylor, of Essex County Fire and Rescue, said: “Following an investigation the cause of the fire has been recorded as accidental, and began after a heat lamp in a tortoise enclosure caught alight.
“The enclosure was on wooden decking outside the property, and the fire quickly spread to a garden pagoda, up through the house, into the roof and across to the neighbour’s roof.
“This incident shows how smoke alarms save lives – although the families were asleep when the fire started, they were both woken by their smoke alarms, which gave them time to safely get out of their houses and call 999.
“Both houses have been completely destroyed.”