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Forest fire near Tirupati

Hyderabad, March 19: A huge fire raging in the hilltop Sheshachalam forests abutting the Tirumala temple has charred over 10,000 hectares of greenery but the holy shrine is safe, authorities said.

This is the first time that such a fire has broken out in the dense forests atop the seven hillocks less than 10km from the temple complex. Forest officials said the flames had risen to a height of 50 metres and thick smoke had enveloped the area.

The army has been called in to assist with fire-fighting operations. One hundred army jawans and four defence helicopters have been sent to Tirumala, chief secretary P.K. Mohanty said.

Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam (TTD) authorities said all steps were being taken to ensure the safety of devotees. Shops around the temple complex have been shut and a pedestrian pathway from Alipiri closed. All other routes by which devotees can head to the shrine on foot have been blocked for fear of attacks by animals fleeing the forests.

The blaze, possibly sparked by dry leaves catching fire in the 40C heat, was first noticed in the early hours of Tuesday. It is believed to have broken out at Kakula Konda near the TTD’s sandalwood plantations, just 6km from the Tirumala temple. Officials said the flames spread rapidly and, by evening, swallowed a huge expanse of the forests.

Despite the efforts of over 300 fire-fighters, forest officials and TTD employees, the fire has yet to be controlled, officials said. As of this evening, the fire was raging about 9km from the Balaji temple.

Some officials expressed concern that the evening winds could draw the flames closer to the temple. But another official said: “Enough water is stored around the temple to tackle emergencies and keep it safe.”

N. Sambashiv Rao, the director-general of fire services, said: “The indirect wind flow is disadvantageous to our efforts to put out the fire. We are not getting any access point to start dousing it. The fire is causing major damage to pilgrim psyche and to safety.”

Another official said: “We have issued alerts in villages and hamlets near Tirumala against animal attacks.”

Earlier in the day, the TTD had sought the Eastern Naval Command’s help. They had suggested that chemicals be air-dropped to check the fire, even agreeing to relax strictures against choppers overflying the temple. Reports, however, said the navy did not have choppers that could help with fire-fighting.

An official said some TTD employees had got trapped on burning grass in the forest while helping with fire-fighting. But they were rescued by placing dense foliage as “bedding” on the grass.