Three police officers were taken to hospital after rescuing a man from a burning flat.

The fire is suspected to have been caused by the electricity meter being bypassed, according to the fire service.

Neighbours said they were lucky the whole block did not go up in a fireball.

The police officers, who suffered smoke inhalation during the drama at a flat in Ayton Close, Barkerend, are recovering well.

Fire crews from Bradford were called at 2.55am yesterday and found the blaze had started from an outside meter.

By chance, police had been in the area for an unrelated domestic incident when they spotted smoke which had spread to two other flats – a ground floor and first floor flat.

The ground floor flat was unoccupied but a man in the first floor property had to be helped outside. He was also treated for smoke inhalation.

Police have now charged a 60-year-old man and a 51-year-old woman with abstracting electricity. The man has also been charged with arson.

Watch commander Alan Holdsworth said: “There was quite a bit of smoke damage to the ground floor and first floor flat. This shows the dangers people put themselves and others in when they bypass electrical meters.”

Meanwhile, neighbours described waking in the early hours to see blue flashing lights, two fire engines, two ambulances and a lot of police in the street.

One resident, who did not want to be named, said: “We could all have gone up in a fireball. The gas pipes run right next to the electricity meters – people could have died. There are elderly people and children in that block. There could have been utter devastation.”

Electricity supply and gas workers worked through the early hours to make the property safe using a mini-digger to excavate pipes.

The property, which belongs to Leeds-based housing provider Places for People, has now been boarded up.

The metre box was completely burned through, exposing grey charred wiring and melted workings.

A spokesman from Places for People said: “We have a zero tolerance policy to tampering with electricity. We are investigating this very serious matter which is now in the hands of the police.”