Tirupati, March 20 :
A joint operation by the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Army Thursday managed to control a huge fire in Seshachalam forest near Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh.
The IAF helicopters sprayed water on the fire raging for three days around Tirumala Hills, which houses the famous Balaji temple.
Two MI-17 V5 helicopters with ‘Bambi buckets’ with a capacity of 4,000 litres of water each made four sorties and extinguished the fires around the Tirumala Hills.
The helicopter operations, conducted from Renigunta Airport near here, are likely to continue Friday, said a defence statement.
The Defence Crisis Management Group, an apex level body of defence forces for managing disaster situations, chaired by the chief of Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), Wednesday swung into action after receiving information from the state government.
An AN-32 aircraft surveyed the area in the evening to provide full overview of the problem. Another light helicopter also flew over the forest. Late Wednesday night, a C-130 aircraft with its sophisticated gadgetry, surveyed the affected areas.
The two MI-17 V5 helicopters reached Renigunta Airport Thursday morning and commenced the fire fighting.
Two Army columns (comprising about 125 soldiers each), moved from Chennai, have been deployed to assist the state administration in dealing with the crisis. The headquarters of the IDS is in touch with the authorities of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) and is continuously monitoring the armed forces response.
The fire destroyed flora and fauna over 5,000 hectares and was threatening the shrine. Earlier, Sambasiva Rao, director general, fire services, made an aerial survey of the forests.
The TTD, which manages the affairs of the famed temple, said the flames at Kakula Konda near Tirumala were controlled to a large extent but the fire was still raging in Papavinasanam.
“We are not taking any chances as this is summer season. The operation will continue till the fire is completely extinguished,” said TTD joint executive officer K. Srinivasa Raju.
The choppers and army personnel joined hundreds of civilians battling the fire, which has already destroyed over 5,000 hectares of forest.
The TTD has closed both the pedestrian pathways leading to Tirumala Hills as a precautionary measure. It has mobilized more than 1,000 personnel from forests, fire services, police and other departments to control the fire.
The authorities reportedly failed to take timely action, which resulted in the fire spreading to a vast area. A small fire was first spotted in the forest range a week ago. The forest department allegedly did not act on the alerts from the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the US.
As Tirumala Hills is a no-fly zone, TTD had to consult the priests, before granting permission to deploy helicopters. This delay also reportedly led to the fire spreading to new areas.