A wildfire in the forests across the Seven hilly range of the Seshachalam forest terrain since Tuesday morning has disrupted the pilgrim flow and also destroyed millions of years old biodiversity rich flora and fauna in the area.
The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) has sought the assistance of Eastern Naval command to send helicopters to drop loads of chemicals that could stop the forest fire which has already engulfed 10,000 hectares acoss nearly 10km in the forest belt. TTD has even relaxed regulations to allow planes to fly over Tirumala to tackle the fire.
As a precautionary measure, TTD has also closed the pedestrian footpaths across the forest to Tirumala shrine for safety of pilgrims as wild animals fleeing the fire could attack them.
Governor E S L Narasimhan has urged the Centre and defence ministery to send C-130 planes to facilitate fire-fighting. Special planes and choppers are expected to reach Tirupati on Thursday morning and take up operations. He has directed the chief secretary to take action to ensure safety of pilgrims and also send all sufficient fire-fighting equipment to Tirumala.
N Sambashiv Rao, director general of Fire Services, says that the state government has succeeded in getting two defence helicopters for fire-fighting purposes which will be operational from Thursday morning.
"Indirect wind flow is disadvantageous to our efforts to nip the fire, and we are not getting any access point from where to stop it, Rao said.
As thick smoke enveloped the hills, shops around the temple were shut and the two pathways to the temple for devotees were also closed. Temple officials said they were taking all steps for the safety of devotees so that wild animals on the run due to fire do not attack pilgrims on pathways. The fire has also threatened a wind power mill located in the forest. "We have also spread alerts in villages and hamlets in the forest near Tirumala to aviod animals attacking civilians."
Though TTD officials ruled out any threat to historic and holistic Temple of Lord Venkateswara at Tirumala which is nestled in the hillocks, its security has been stepped up doubled up and all protective measures were under way to ensure against threat to thousands of pilgrims at Tirumala. Foot walkers have been stopped since Wednesday in view of the fire across the foot path from Alipiri.
The wildfire broke out at Kakula Konda near the TTD's sandalwood plantations on Tirumala, just 6km from the Tirumala temple. It was noticed in the early hours of Tuesday by the locals but by evening, the fire spread over a vast area of the forest, razing to ground whatever came in its way. It sparked off dry leaves catching fire due to the summer blaze as the mercury has touched the 40 degrees Celsius in Tirumala.
Over 300 fire fighters, forest and TTD employees toiled all through Tuesday and Wednesday to stop the fire.
Hundreds of TTD workers are participating in the rescue work.
As of now there is no threat to the holy temple of Balaji, but officials are concerned that if the fire spread now with the evening winds it could come closer to the Temple area .'Enough water is stored in Tirumala around the temple to ward off any emergency and protect the temple ' say the officials .
A TTD vigilance officer in charge of operations says that several TTD workers who were stuck in the middle of the forest were rescued by using green foliage as a bedding on the burning grass. The rescue operations were being supervised by chief vigilance and security officer G Srinivas and reserve forest DFO Srinivasulu.
Chittoor district forest officials say that the flames rose to a height of 50 metres and thick smoke engulfed the entire area making it difficult to take up fire-fighting. Forest officials suspect that the rare species of wildlife, civet cats, birds, peacocks and also medicinal plans could have been destroyed in forest fire, the first of its size and kind affecting Tirumala.