Hundreds of forest fires blazing across north India for over a week spread to a prominent boarding school in Himachal Pradesh’s Kasauli on Monday afternoon, triggering panicked evacuation of students.
Television visuals showed children being taken out of the premises of the Pinegrove School as fire trucks rushed to the campus.
News channel NDTV reported the blaze was put out in an hour but thick black smoke engulfing the entire town.
Fire also spread to Lawrence school in Kasauli, 5 km from Pinegrove school, as students evacuated in a hurry with columns of smoke descending on the complex.
The fire at Lawrence school was brought under control before it could cause damage, said R Chauhan, a teacher at Lawrence school.
“The fire broke out in forests in Kasauli areas and forests surrounding the Sanawar School were also affected but the school complex was fully safe and fires have been extinguished”, said Rakesh Kanwar, deputy commissioner, Solan.
Blazes were reported from 12 new places in the forests around Shimla with chief minister Virbhadra Singh saying a rise in temperature caused the fire in Shimla rural forest division that gutted 50 hectares.
“It is nothing new. Fire break out in forest areas is due to rise in temperature,” Singh told reporters in Rampur on Sunday.
Officials reported 378 incidents of fire in grasslands and forests, mainly in the low hills, which has destroyed flora and fauna in over 3,000 hectares.
“The sudden rise in mercury and the prolonged dry spell are mainly the reasons for these forest fires. Most of the fire-related cases are from the Shivalik ranges in Bilaspur, Hamirpur, Kangra, Solan and Sirmaur districts and a majority of them are ground fires,” principal chief forest conservator S P Vasudeva told IANS.
Records of the forest department said a quarter of the total forest area in the state is fire-prone. A majority of the fires were reported from the pine forests since during summer, the trees shed pine needles that are highly inflammable due to the rich content of turpentine oil.
The pine forest is found up to an altitude of 5,500 feet.
Billowing smoke from the hills of Shimla, Kasauli, Chail, Dharampur and Nahan towns have become common these days.
“A huge track of forest in the Tara Devi hills (overlooking Shimla town) was ravaged in the past two days,” local villager Ramesh Chand told IANS.
He said there was also an extensive damage to the wildlife and blamed the fires on local residents setting small tracts of land on fire to retrieve softer grass after the rain.
The fires hit rural life with villagers battling dense smoke as water supply systems broke down. Forests in Patiyud, Dashala, Anandpur villages, around 20 to 25 kilometre from Shimla town, have been burning for last two-three days.
“I think 50-60 hectares of area is affected ... Several incidents of fire from different areas have been reported after a rise in temperature,” Shimla divisional forest officer (DFO) Raman Sharma told ANI.
In Uttarakhand, officials said forest fires were doused in over 70% of the affected areas with over 130 personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) deployed to tackle the massive blaze.
Over 10,000 personnel of different departments are helping the NDRF to douse the fires in Uttarakhand forests. The Centre has also deployed three MI-17 helicopters of the Indian Air Force along with state police, State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), forest staff, home guards and local volunteers to battle the forest fire.
(With Agency Inputs)