Tamil Nadu forest fire kills 10; Kerala bans forest trekking: 10 highlights

Theni forest fire victims. Photo: PTI
A massive forest fire, which started on Saturday in Tamil Nadu's Theni, has claimed ten lives so far and seriously injured another 14 of the 36 trekkers that had gone mountain trekking in Kurangani hills in Bodi foothills. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami on Monday ordered a probe into the incident. Speaking of stepped up rescue operations, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said an advanced light helicopter had been sent to save those trapped in the forest fire. 

Twenty-seven people have been rescued so far by the fire and forest departments, along with Indian Air Force’s (IAF's) aid — 14 of them is admitted to hospitals in Madurai and Erode after suffering serious burns. The defence ministry swung into full force by fielding 16 commandos of the Garud Commando Force and four choppers from the Indian Air Force to fasten the rescue operation of those stuck in Kurangani forest fire in Theni district.

Meanwhile, a temporary helipad has been set up at the Bodi foothills near the trekkers’ camp and Indian Air Force has sent two helicopters for an aerial survey of the site on the directive of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman after she was approached for help by Palaniswami.

Here are the top 10 developments of Kurangani forest fire in Tamil Nadu:

1. Trekking organiser's office found closed

A 'volunteer' organisation that is believed to have arranged the ill-fated trekking expedition of a 36-member group in Theni district in which nine people were killed has been found closed here, police said today.

Police said a couple of officials were deputed to make enquiries at the office of the group at Palavakkam here, but found it to be closed.

The website of the organisation also did not have details of those managing its affairs.

2. Trekkers caught in forest fire didn't take permission for expedition: TN CM

The trekkers who were caught in a forest fire in the Western Ghat's Kurangani Hill ranges did not have permission for an expedition, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Palaniswami said today.

"Without permission, they embarked on a trekking expedition.

Trekkers should climb hills only after taking the government's nod," the chief minister said here.

Stern action would be taken in the future against trekkers who undertake such expeditions without the state's permission, he said.

3. Defence force swings into action: An advanced light helicopter (ALH) will be put into service to rescue those still trapped in Tamil Nadu forest fire. Citing the difficult terrain as a major hindrance in conducting operations seamlessly, Sitharaman said, "We are also bringing in an ALH, which is a light helicopter so that the maneuverability will be better because this cliff is almost a vertical hillock, which goes up very sharply and there is not much not of a level ground where they can land."

Earlier during the day, 16 commandos of the Garud Commando Force and four choppers from the IAF, with one of them at standby, arrived at Theni today morning to commence the search and rescue operation.

"At the moment, the report is that the garuds are trying to lift the bodies of the dead to a higher plain, from where you can have the helicopters go and carry them down. So there are two helicopters waiting to do this particular activity," Sitharaman said.

One helicopter has spent a lot of time from early dawn to contain the fire. It has also has doused the fire in that area, from where the garuds have moved the bodies, she added.

District Collector Pallavi Baldev said the operations were continuing and the trekkers were being brought down by the rescue team members.

4. Nine trekkers dead: The reserved forest fire in the Western Ghats near Bodinayakanur in Theni, about 40 kilometres from Tamil Nadu claimed nine lives and injured another 27 out of the 32 people that had gone for a mountain expedition on Saturday. Among the dead, six were from Chennai and three from Erode. They were camped in an estate and were returning when the fire broke out in the forest.

"Nine persons are dead, while 17 of the rescued have been hospitalised and 10 did not require hospitalisation," Commissioner of Revenue Administration K Sathyagopal said, according to news agency PTI. The bodies have been sent for identification and they would be handed over to the relatives after autopsy.

5. Kerala bans trekking in forestThe Kerala government has issued directions that trekking to the hills should be stopped until all fire lines get cleared, said Kerala Principal Chief Conservator P K Kesavan.

Authorities on Sunday rushed a police team to help in rescue operations of over a dozen students caught up in a fire in Theni forest area in Tamil Nadu bordering Idukki district, Kerala Police chief Loknath Behra said.

Behra said instructions have been issued to Idukki district police chief to give all assistance in the rescue operation. "Medicines and food also have been sent to the spot. Behra spoke to his Tamil Nadu counterpart and assured of all help. He also asked Kerala State Fire and Rescue chief for all possible assistance," a media statement from Behra's office late Sunday night said.

Theni borders the famed Thekkady tourist destination in Kerala.

6. Injured suffer serious burns: One of the injured identified as Anu Nithya sustained 90 per cent burns injury, while other two Ilakiya and Sabitha have got 15-20 per cent burn injuries. State health minister C Vijayabhaskar said the injured trekkers were received at Kurangani by a medical team.

"There is a medical team. Nine patients have already been shifted to Government Hospital in Bodi and they are all stable," he told reporters.

Madurai District Collector Veeraraghava Rao said medical teams comprising plastic surgeons have been deployed to provide treatment at the Madurai Government Rajaji Hospital.

Sitharaman had confirmed on Sunday that the commandos deployed in the rescue mission would carry medicines and provide medical assistance on spot.

Theni forest fire victims. Photo: PTI

7. Cause of fire unknown: His deputy O Panneerselvem, Forest Minister Dindigul C Srinivasan and top officials were overseeing the operations, on Palaniswami's request, he told reporters in Salem. Stating that the cause of the fire was not known, he said efforts would be taken to strengthen the forest area security further.

"It is dark, it is a hilly place and it is not a motorable road. After a particular distance, we have to go by walk and there is a situation where we need to lift and carry the injured physically. It will definitely take time," Baldev said when asked about the time-frame for rescuing all.

8. Sitharaman responds promptly to aid call: Sitharaman remained in touch with the District Collector and directed the Indian Airforce to co-ordinate in the rescue operations.

In a tweet, she said two helicopters of the Indian Air Force from its Sulur base near Coimbatore were being sent to assist in the rescue operations.

Responding to the request from the Hon @CMOTamilNadu on the forest -fire related issue -20 students are caught in Kurangani, Theni district. Instructed @IAF_MCC to help in rescue and evacuation. The Southern Command is in touch with the Collector of Theni. @ThanthiTV @pibchennai

— Nirmala Sitharaman (@nsitharaman) March 11, 2018

In another tweet around 7 pm, Sitharaman said she spoke to the Theni District Collector who informed her that 10-15 students were making their way to the foothills.

9. How the trekkers reached spot yet to be known: The official said since the area does not have a good mobile network, full information on the efforts is not available. Senior fire service officials also have gone there.

The Fire Department got information about the incident around 3 pm on Sunday, said another fire official.

"One of the trekking team members called 108 Ambulance Service and alerted about the situation. The ambulance service then called us," the official said.

Fire service personnel reached the forest armed with ropes, searchlights and other equipment to climb the hills. The official said the vehicles can ply only till Kurangani Hills.Upon the hills, there is a tourist spot called 'Otha Maram' (single tree).

"That has become a tourist spot now. From Bodinayakanur, Kurangani Hills is around 12 kilometres. From there one has to trek up to Otha Maram spot," the fire official added. He said the trekking team could have climbed from the Kerala side also.

The official said it is not known how they reached the spot and if it was with or without the knowledge of the Forest Department.

10. Union Minister of State for Finance expresses grief: Union Minister of State for Finance and Shipping Pon Radhakrishnan expressed grief and shock at the loss of life of those who were caught up in the blaze.

The Minister said he was praying for the fast recovery of those who were injured. He also thanked Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman for deploying the IAF team in the rescue effort.

Just now enquired about #TheniForestFire with District Collector. 36 members out of 39 went forest where 10 rescued without any injury.17 injured victims admitted in the hospital for treatment.On injured victims,My prayers with the Almighty for speedy recovery.@PMOIndia

— Pon Radhakrishnan (@PonnaarrBJP) March 12, 2018

I have keep in touch with TN State Health Minister Hon'ble Dr.VijayBhaskar enquiring about the treatment which given to the victims rescued from #TheniForestFire . @PIB_India @PMOIndia

— Pon Radhakrishnan (@PonnaarrBJP) March 12, 2018
Kamal Haasan tweets his wishes: Meanwhile, actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan conveyed his wishes to those recovering from the "heart-rending" forest fire.

"Kurangani forest fire and its victims is heart-rending. Those with burn injuries should heal fast. I wish them all the best for recovery and rehabilitation. To those bereaved families, my deepest sympathy," he tweeted.


Kurangani forest fire and its victims is heart rending. Those with burn injuries should heal fast. I wish them all the best for recovery and rehabilitation. To those bereived families my deepest sympathy.

— Kamal Haasan (@ikamalhaasan) March 12, 2018

/> With Agency inputs