House fire started by tortoise wakeup call for pet owners, firefighters say

Bits the tortoise blamed for knocking over heat lamp

By Katrina Webber - Crime Fighters Reporter

SAN ANTONIO - It's not something San Antonio firefighters see every day -- a house fire started by a giant tortoise.

However, they believe that's how a fire started on the city's Northwest Side early Tuesday morning, causing major damage to a home in the 9700 block of Village Gate.

Fire Department spokesman Woody Woodward said firefighters who answered the call around 12:30 a.m. found out that the reptile actually belonged to the homeowner next door to the home that caught fire.

Woodward said the pet was outside in a cage between the two homes, apparently on a mattress with a heat lamp to keep warm.

"Somehow, the heat lamp got knocked over, ignited the mattress, which started the fire which spread to the neighbor's home," he said. "The fact that it was a pet that ignited the fire is not that unusual. The fact that it's a giant tortoise makes it extremely unusual."

Hours later, the owner of the tortoise came out of his home to survey the damage.  He told KSAT 12 News that the fire was a terrible accident.

The man, who didn't reveal his name, shared a photo of his longtime pet, named "Bits." He said he has owned the tortoise for 15 years, raising it from a palm-sized pet to the 100-plus pounds giant that it is today.

Bits' owner said the reptile emerged from the fire with just some minor singeing to its leg and didn't require veterinary care.

Two adults and two children safely escaped the fire, which caused about $150,000 in damage to their home.

Woodward said the fire brings to light something people may not always consider.

"This time of year, we talk about space heaters for adults, not really thinking about ways that we may be trying to provide heat for our pets," he said.  "A lot of people have snakes in San Antonio and lizards and other things that they may be using heat lamps for."

Woodward urged pet owners to be extra careful when using heating devices around pets. 

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