Forest fires flare close to famous Shimla railway

Shimla, May 3

Forest fires raging in India’s Himalayan region crept perilously close to a famous British-era railway track today, as panicked residents fought off blazes threatening to engulf their homes.

Dubbed the “toy train” and dotted with tiny wooden stations, the narrow-gauge Kalka-Shimla railway in Himachal Pradesh state is a UNESCO world heritage site attracting thousands of tourists each year. “Our gangmen are keeping watch over the fires and dousing the flames if they are too close to the track,” said Sanjay Parmar, a traffic inspector with Indian Railways.

“Train services on the track have been delayed for two days due to the fire around the track,” he said.

Fires sweeping through pine-forested areas drew closer to at least three towns across the northern state, famed for its snowy peaks and flowing rivers, while a boarding school was forced to evacuate.

“An alert has been sounded across the state and police, fire tenders and volunteers have been pressed into service to put out the fires,” senior police official Sanjay Kundu said.

TV footage showed a family in the hill station of Kasauli trying to extinguish fires themselves using sticks and water.

“We were up all night,” a resident of Kasauli told NDTV television network. “We are trying to put out the fire on our own as there has been no help from the authorities so far.”

Usually mild lower parts of the state have seen temperatures soar to 42 C, with the capital Shimla hitting 29.8 C (86 F), about six degrees higher than normal.

Fires have also been raging in the forests of neighbouring Uttarakhand state where at least eight people have died, local media reports said.

Officials said it was unclear what started the fires but their intensity has been blamed on a severe drought gripping central and western India.

The country is suffering its worst water crisis in years, with the government saying about 330 million people are suffering from drought after the last two monsoons failed.

The Kalka-Shimla railway, which opened in 1903, follows a scenic 96-kilometre route that includes 103 tunnels, travelling on a winding track from the town of Kalka up to Shimla, the former summer capital during British rule.