Chennai: Thirty seven people, mostly students, were trapped in a forest fire while on a trekking expedition at Kurangani forest, near Bodi, in Theni district of Tamil Nadu on Sunday. Helicopters of the Indian Air Force (IAF), along with 100 others from local police and forest department, were pressed into rescue efforts after chief minister K Palaniswamy reached out to defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman for help.
According to Sitharaman’s latest tweets, 10 commandos who had reached Madurai via chopper by 11.30 pm were to reach the students by 3 am by road and then trek. They will stay in touch through GPS and satellite phones until four helicopters are sent to rescue those stranded. If the choppers can’t land, the students will be airlifted, the defence minister tweeted.
Among those trapped in the forest fire that broke out suddenly on Sunday afternoon were 24 youngsters from Chennai Trekking Club and 13 from Erode and Tirupur.
As of midnight, 12 people were rescued (15 according to PTI) and brought to Bodi Government Hospital, according to Theni district collectorate. Collector Mariam Pallavi Baldev visited those rescued at the hospital.
Additionally, 13 people from the scattered group have been located and officials from the fire and forest departments are administering first aid to them. Air force choppers have been stationed in Madurai and will be deployed to rescue as soon as there is enough daylight for them to navigate safely. The whereabouts of eight people were unknown at the time of writing.
The attempts to locate and rescue the trekkers have been going on since 5 pm on Sunday. Tamil Nadu forest minsiter, Dindigul C Sreenivasan, and senior officials from the forest department have been rushed to the spot.
Rescue had to slow down because of nightfall. According to Bodi DSP office, the terrain is hampering communications rendering most phones and mics non-viable. To work through the night, high powered searchlights are being arranged. Some of those rescued were being brought down in a dolly and were administered first aid at the base of the hill.
Earlier on Sunday, the IAF was pressed into rescue operations on orders from the defence minister. Rescue helicopters were rushed to Madurai from Sulur Base in Coimbatore and Arakkonam Naval Air Station.
Local reports suggest that fire had been spreading over the hills near Kurangani throughout Saturday but it spread to the part trekkers were visiting only on Sunday.
Usually, attempt are not made to extinguish forest fires, but only to contain them. They are allowed to burn themselves out. It is not known what led the fire to spread despite measures being taken to control it. When forest officials were alerted that the fire was spreading to trekking district, they sent word to ask them to return, but the fire spread further before trekkers could retreat. The sudden spread of fire trapped them.
Speaking while on his way to Bodi to meet survivors at the government hospital, Deputy Chief Minister O Paneerselvam said that the task of rescuing the trekkers is being accelerated and has been happening at a fast pace.
The district collector said that the trekking group included 26 women, eight men and three children. “The group reached Kollukumalai on Saturday morning and camped in an estate. They were returning when the fire engulfed that part of the forest and were scattered,” she said, adding that all responsible departments have been pressed into action to expedite rescue operations.
“As of now I have not got any information on deaths. A total of 15 people have been treated for burn injuries,” Baldev said.
The three children in the trekking party — Neha (9), Sadhana (11) and Bhavana (12) — have been rescued and haven’t suffered critical injuries.
Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswamy said. “It is being treated as a critical, emergency situation. Fire and ambulance are on standby. Firefighters, forest officials, police, have been called from neighbouring districts with necessary equipment. Central government was requested to provide helicopters for rescue work,” he said.
The chief minister said that security cover in the forest will be heightened to prevent such incidents and an inquiry will be conducted into the incident. “If necessary, we will ask the Central government for further assistance,” Palaniswamy said.
Shaktikala, a yoga teacher who is among those trapped in the forest hills, had gone along with her two daughters, Sadhana and Bhavana. Her husband works in London. While the children have been rescued, Shaktikala is reportedly still trapped and may have suffered burns in the fire, her mother said.
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Updated Date: Mar 12, 2018 11:22:07 IST