Shimla’s Gorton Castle, which caught fire Tuesday, joins a long list of heritage buildings ravaged by fire in Shimla. Tuesday’s was the first fire in a decade to have struck a British-era heritage building, but fire officials say many other structures have continued to suffer in a hill town defined by its wooden buildings.
Gorton Castle, 110 years old and housing the office of the accountant general, had been built with grey stone walls but was renovated with wooden interiors, with wiring behind the panels carrying power to a heating system, employees there say.
“It was a marvel of British architecture admired by people across the country and outside,” said principal AG Satish Loomba. And historian Raaja Bhasin said, “Fire safety is being neglected in Shimla… British-era buildings are being lost one by one.”
Among the earliest in memory is Himachal Dham that housed the secretariat, and where a fire broke out in 1957. Some buildings have been restored, some replaced with modern structures. Walker Military Hospital is awaiting reconstruction. Kennedy Cottage on the assembly complex has made way for a parking facility. Peterhoff building, once Raj Bhavan, has been rebuilt as the circuit house, and Wildflower Hall as a luxury resort of the Oberoi group .
“Between 1998 and 2014, too, there were many fires, though not in any major British-era building,” said chief fire officer Bhupal Chauhan.
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A common cause of most fires has been electric appliances that have replaced traditional bukharis and angithis. Most of these wooden buildings are coated in thick layers of inflammable chemical paint, and are forever at risk from electrical appliances drawing from wires often loose and worn out.
“We circulate fire safety guidelines every year before winter but there is hardly any effect,” says DGP (fire services) I D Bhandari.
Firefighting is difficult because of unplanned construction next to heritage buildings. The fire brigade Tuesday lost almost half an hour in reaching Gorton Castle because of parked vehicles. “A lot of time is wasted in gaining access and driving though congested lanes,” Bhandari said.
Deputy mayor Tikender Panwar said, “I think the Gorton Castle fire is a wake-up call. Parking should not be allowed around such buildings. There should also be strict regulations on new constructions.”