By Mohamed Siddique
Hyderabad: The Indian Navy was on Thursday gaining control over raging wild fires in Seshachalam forest, near one of the holiest Hindu religious sites, the Tirumala Hills.
The fire, which wreaked havoc in the forest over the past three days, appeared to be receding as two helicopter from the Eastern Naval command poured water and chemicals on the flames.
“The extremely dry weather and high temperatures have made the job even more difficult,” said a senior official at the stop.
Of the four naval helicopters, which landed at the Renigunta airport, two took part in the fire fighting operations. They drew water from Kumaradhara and Vasundhara reservoirs.
Tirumala Tirupati Devstahanam (TTD) chairman Kannumuri Bapi Raju and executive officer M. Gopal visited some parts of the Kakalakona forest near Papavinasham.
The forest was completely dry, causing the fire to spread rapidly.
Parts of Andhra Pradesh are already in the grip of high summer temperature with Rayalaseema recording more than 39 degrees Celsius.
Officials have focused their efforts on putting out the fire around Papavinasam.
Director-General of Fire Services Sambasiva Rao also visited the gutted parts of forest and issued directions to the firefighters.
Such was the intensity of the fire that the TTD authorities had to close down Papavinasam, one of the holy places around Tirumala temple.
Shops in the area were also closed down and shopkeepers were sent to Tirumala hills. The normally bustling area wore a completely deserted look.
After naval experts undertook an aerial survey and assessed the situation, the helicopters got down to the work of spraying water and chemical to bring the fire under control.
“Intense heat had made impossible for any human operation. Nobody was able to go nearer to the flames,” said an official of the fire department in the area.
Apart from the navy personnel, a large contingent of security forces including Greyhounds commandos, 500 personnel from the special police force and fire service personnel from the Chittor district were also deployed at the scene of the fire to bring the situation under control.
State governor ESL Narasimhan, who was monitoring the situation from Hyderabad, was in constant touch with the defence authorities. Seshachalam forest area surrounding the Tirumala hills is famous for unique species of plants and animals and experts were apprehensive that fire might have destroyed a part of this natural treasure trove.
The forest, spread over an area of 4,755 square kilometrss in Kadapa and Chittoor district, is part of the Eastern Ghats and it was declared as a biosphere reserve by the central government in 2010. It has 1,700 species of trees and many endangered species of fauna including Asian elephants, golden jackal, Indian fox, spotted deer and mouse deer.
The fire, which was first spotted three days ago, rapidly spread and reached very close to the Tirumala hills. At one stage it was only three kms away.
From Mangalam village on Kadapa-Tirupati road, the fire moved in a westerly direction and, after ravaging Sheshachalam forest, it moved north towards Kakulakona near Gogarbham dam.
The fire has also damaged wind power generators and cables on a nearby hillock.
At one stage the main Ghat Road from Alipiri was also closed off for pilgrims, as authorities feared that the fire could spread in the direction of the road. Similarly the path for the pedestrian pilgrims was also closed. But they were reopened when the threat came down.
The state government called in the helicopters for firefighting duties only after getting the nod of the senior priests and religious authorities of Tirumala Tirupati Devsthanam.
They said that under the “Agama” rules, helicopters can only operate outside the no-fly zone around the temple.
Meanwhile the leader of opposition N. Chandrababu Naidu spoke to the governor over the phone and urged him to take immediate steps to protect the sanctity of Tirumala region. Naidu advised him to take help of Indian Navy to put out the fire.
“The governor responded positively,” a TDP press release said.