Tamil Nadu forest fire: CM Palaniswami orders probe; top 10 developments

Ten trekkers have died and 14 left seriously injured in a massive forest fire that started on Saturday in Tamil Nadu's Theni. The 36 trekkers had gone mountain trekking in Kurangani hills in the Bodi foothills. On Monday, while Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami ordered a probe into the incident, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke of stepped up rescue operations and said that an advanced light helicopter had been sent to save those trapped in the forest fire.

A Revenue Department official in Madurai told news agencies that the injured had been admitted to hospitals in Madurai. "As per our information, they have suffered burn injuries of up to 40 per cent," the official said. 

The Tamil Nadu government has ordered a probe into the incident and assured action against those who allegedly arranged the expedition without permission.

Of the 10 persons killed in the fire at Kurangani Hill ranges in Western Ghats, seven were women and three were men. While seven of the victims were from Chennai, others were from Erode district. 

Swinging into full force, the defence ministry deployed 16 commandos of the Garud Commando Force and four choppers from the Indian Air Force to speed up the rescue operation of those stuck in the Kurangani forest fire in Theni district. A temporary helipad was set up at the Bodi foothills near the trekkers' camp and Indian Air Force 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.

Part of International Women’s Day celebrations, the mountain-climbing adventure trip included two groups of 24 trekkers from Chennai Trekking Club and 12 from Erode and Tiruppur, said District Collector Pallavi Baldev. Palaniswami said the trekking expedition had been done without getting the necessary permission from the Forest Department.

Here are the top 10 developments in the Kurangani forest fire in Tamil Nadu's Theni district:

1) PM Modi, Rahul Gandhi express their condolences: Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended his condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the Theni forest fire in Tamil Nadu. My condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the Theni forest fire. I hope that those who are injured recover soon, Modi said in a tweet.

My condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the Theni forest fire. I hope that those who are injured recover soon.

— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 12, 2018

Congress President Rahul Gandhi condoled the deaths in the forest fire in Tamil Nadu. "I am deeply saddened by the #TheniForestFire and #NepalPlaneCrash, two tragedies that have claimed many lives. My condolences to the families of the victims. You are in my prayers and thoughts," tweeted Gandhi. "I also wish those injured a speedy recovery," he added.

I’m deeply saddened by the #TheniForestFire and #NepalPlaneCrash, two tragedies that have claimed many lives.

My condolences to the families of the victims. You are in my prayers and thoughts.

I also wish those injured a speedy recovery.

— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) March 12, 2018

2) CM Palaniswami announces solatium: Chief Minister K Palaniswami announced a solatium of Rs 400,000 (Rs 4 lakh) to each of the families of the deceased, Rs 100,000 (Rs 1 lakh) to the grievously injured, and Rs 50,000 to those with simple injuries. 

3) Palaniswami calls for action against trek organisers: As the death toll in the Theni forest fire rose, Chief Minister Palaniswami said that action should be taken against those who arranged the trek without the Forest department's permission.   

According to agency reports, a 'volunteer' organisation, which is believed to have arranged the ill-fated trekking expedition in Theni district, was found closed, police said on Monday. Police said a couple of officials were deputed to make enquiries at the office of the group at Palavakkam, but found it to be closed. The website of the organisation also did not have details of those managing its affairs. 

Palaniswami also said that the district administration and health department officials had been instructed to make sure that the best medical treatment and care was provided to those admitted to local hospitals. He also prayed for their swift recovery.

Palaniswami said that soon after he came to know of the fire on Sunday, he had directed steps for the trekkers' safe rescue.

10 people succumbed to their injuries. During summer, the woods are all dry. People have to be careful and precautions must be taken: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E Palanisamy on #KuranganiForestFire pic.twitter.com/i84tiOgt1x

— ANI (@ANI) March 12, 2018

4) Details on the organisers: Theni District Collector Pallavi Baldev said that more than 20 trekkers were from the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC) and the others from Erode and Tiruppur. According to the website, the CTC is a non-profit, volunteer group that organises outdoor sports, environmental conservation, and social activities on weekends and weekday mornings throughout the year. 

"Founded in 2008 the group has grown to one of the most active and largest in South India with over 40,000 members and hundreds of activities throughout the year. All activities are free -- expenses are shared equally among participants," says the website www.chennaitrekkers.org. 

5) Panneerselvam overseeing operations: Chief Minister Palaniswami said that Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam and the others oversaw the operations. 

Palaniswami's Cabinet colleagues -- Revenue Minister R B Udayakumar and Health Minister C Vijayabaskar, besides some senior officials -- were also camping in that area. 

6) The sequence of the ill-fated trek: How did the victims who had embarked on the ill-fated trekking expedition get caught in the forest fire? A 36-member team -- 24 people from Chennai and 12 from the Tiruppur and Erode districts -- had embarked on the trekking expedition and reached the Kurangani hills on March 10.

The team included 25 women and three children, according to Theni District Collector Mariam Pallavi Baldev. Three of them had returned to the plains without going ahead further. 

Baldev said that after staying at an estate in Kozhukumalai overnight, the trekkers started their return journey to the plains on Sunday morning when they heard of the sudden forest fire. They got separated while attempting to find a safe way. 

According to Baldev, the trekkers were caught in the forest fire in Kurangani Kozhukumalai hill ranges near Theni, some 500 km away from Chennai. The hills are in the Western Ghats near Bodinayakanur, about 40 km from Theni. 

7) Trekkers did not take govt permission: Earlier on Monday, Chief Minister Palaniswami had said that the trekkers caught in the fire did not have permission for their expedition. "Without permission, they embarked on a trekking expedition. Trekkers should climb hills only after taking the government's nod," he had said in his native Salem district. 

The Chief Minister also warned that stern action would be taken in future against trekkers who undertake such expeditions without the state's permission.

During the summer months of March, April, and May, permission to trek is not given since the high forest ranges are dry and there is a possibility of forest fires spreading fast, he had said.  

8) Garud commandos, IAF helicopters conduct rescue operations: The Centre deployed defence helicopters and commando forces during the operations. According to agency reports, the Indian Air Force (IAF) mounted a search and rescue operation on Sunday. Apart from its 15 Garud commandos, the IAF pressed three of its helicopters into service for the rescue mission. 

The commandos flew from the Sulur Air Base near Coimbatore late on Sunday and climbed the hills.

On Sunday, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said that the commandos would be deployed in rescue mission. They would carry medicines and provide medical assistance. 

Sitharaman on Monday said that an advanced light helicopter (ALH) would be pressed into service for rescuing those trapped in the Tamil Nadu forest fire. Citing the difficult terrain as a major hindrance in conducting operations, Sitharaman said, "We are also bringing in an ALH, which is a light helicopter so that the manoeuvrability 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." 

IAF helicopters brought the remains of eight of the killed from the hills. The bodies have been sent for identification and would be handed over to the relatives after autopsy.

#TheniFire - In a coordinated Search & Rescue effort with the State Govt and Indian Air Force, 27 of the 36 stranded have been rescued. The mortal remains of 9 have been brought back by the @IAF_MCC . @nsitharaman

— Raksha Mantri (@DefenceMinIndia) March 12, 2018

1. #TheniFire Search and Rescue Effort - At 1746 hrs yesterday, Secretary to the @CMOTamilNadu reached out to the Raksha Mantri Office to request assistance in rescuing students trapped in #Kurangani forest fire in Theni Distt, Tamil Nadu

— Raksha Mantri (@DefenceMinIndia) March 12, 2018

2. Smt @nsitharaman immediately instructed the Southern Air Command of the @IAF_MCC to coordinate with the Distt Collector of Theni to rescue those stranded. IAF Helicopter from the Sulur Air Base did a recce of the affected area from 1930 to 2030 hrs. #TheniFire

— Raksha Mantri (@DefenceMinIndia) March 12, 2018

3. In addition to efforts of Forest officials and District Collector, helicopter w/ 10 Commandos (Garuds) from the Sulur Air Base was immediately mobilized which reached Madurai by 2330 hrs. The Commandos then traveled by road & trekked to reach students by 0300 hrs. #TheniFire

— Raksha Mantri (@DefenceMinIndia) March 12, 2018

4. The commandos were equipped with GPS & satellite phones to navigate & keep in touch w/ the Air Base and local authorities. Upon reaching, commandos assisted in giving first aid & safely evacuating the students. As a result of efforts, 27 of 36 stranded were rescued #TheniFire

— Raksha Mantri (@DefenceMinIndia) March 12, 2018

5. From early dawn today, one @IAF_MCC helicopter put out the blazing fire in the limited area to enable rescue & air lift. It returned to Sulur Air Base on completing the tank. An ALH (Advance Light Helicopter) was also inducted into the operation early this morning. #TheniFire

— Raksha Mantri (@DefenceMinIndia) March 12, 2018

6. At early dawn today, @IAF_MCC helis recovered all bodies (9 as of now) & took them to the distt hospital. Some of the bodies were lying in crevices on steep rocky slopes. As slope was acute, landing of helis was difficult & rescue could only be done through winching #TheniFire

— Raksha Mantri (@DefenceMinIndia) March 12, 2018

7. @IAF_MCC and Garud Commandos stood up to these challenging conditions and assisted the local authorities effectively. Smt @nsitharaman and her office were in constant touch with the Southern Air Command and local authorities throughout. #TheniFire

— Raksha Mantri (@DefenceMinIndia) March 12, 2018

I would like to appreciate RM @nsitharaman Ji, the Indian Air Force, the Garud Commandos and the local administration for their stupendous efforts during the rescue and relief operations in the wake of the Theni forest fire.

— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 12, 2018

#WATCH: IAF helicopter deployed to douse #KuranganiForestFire with underslung Bambi Bucket (Source: IAF) pic.twitter.com/2OVczSHt5R

— ANI (@ANI) March 12, 2018

9) Injured suffer serious burn injuries: One of the injured, identified as Anu Nithya, sustained 90 per cent burns injury, while the other two, Ilakiya and Sabitha, sustained 15-20 per cent burn injuries. State health minister C Vijayabhaskar said that 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 that medical teams comprising plastic surgeons had been deployed to provide treatment at the Madurai Government Rajaji Hospital. 

10) Kerala bans trekking in forest: The 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.


With agency inputs