THIEVES have ruined Christmas for three young children after they stole their presents, ransacked their home and set fire to it.

The family — two girls, aged 10 and six, their two-month-old baby brother and their mother — were away visiting family in York when someone broke in at 12.25am yesterday and set five fires.

They then fled, stealing presents including a Playstation 3, a TV, arts and crafts materials and children’s clothes from under the Christmas tree.

The youngsters and their mum, named locally as Emma, had only moved into the mid-terrace house in Rawsthorne Street, Halliwell, two months ago but now cannot return because it is so badly damaged. Neighbour Steven Lucas, aged 30, raised the alarm after smelling smoke. He said: “I went outside the house and saw flames and called 999. I didn’t know if the woman and kids were there or not.

“I just wanted to get everybody out because the gas meter is behind the front door and I was worried there would be an explosion.”

The bathroom of Mr Lucas’ house, where he lives with his 48-year-old partner, was filled with smoke and a 29-year-old woman who was visiting was taken to hospital after breathing in smoke.

A 35-year-old nearby resident, who asked not to be named, said: “To hear it was deliberate is frightening.

“To do this at any time of the year is awful, but setting fire to a home days before Christmas is even more cruel.

“How could someone do that when it would have been obvious that children lived there?”

Firefighters were at the scene for more than three hours.

Crew manager Paul Norris, from Bolton Central Fire Station, said the fires were started in the baby’s crib, on two settees and in some clothes.

He said: “When we arrived the home was quite well alight.

“The damage caused was quite bad.”

Sgt Martin Lally, from the Bolton East Neighbourhood Policing Team, said: “We had to do something so that Christmas wouldn’t be spoiled for the family.

“It’s just horrible to see a family go without during this time when it’s supposed to be a period of giving.”

Anyone who wants to donate gifts to the family can contact police on 0161 8565761.