At least 65 trekkers, many of them believed to be college students, IT employees and families with children from Chennai, Coimbatore and Tirupur, were trapped Sunday in a fire that swept through the Theni forest in Tamil Nadu, bordering Kerala. Five persons were confirmed to have suffered serious burn injuries, and police and forest officers engaged in rescue operations said they feared at least three others may have been killed.
The five seriously injured were among 15 who were rescued late evening by local residents in the area. At least 24 of those trapped are from Chennai, said officials. Speaking to The Indian Express late Sunday night, a state government official camping in the area said: “We have not been able to physically verify the reports of deaths. The nearest government hospital in Bodinayakkanur has not reported any dead body being received. Around 15 ambulances are on standby, and an adequate number of doctors and medical workers have been mobilised at Korangani and Bodinayakkanur to receive the victims being brought down from the hills.”
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that the IAF had been instructed to help the rescue operation. “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,” she tweeted.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Theni SP, V Baskaran, said, “A special team of forest and police officers has reached the spot where most of the trekkers are stranded. We hope to rescue them in the next few hours. People from tribal villages nearby are also helping in the rescue operation,” he said.
A relative of a woman injured in the fire told The Indian Express that she had gone trekking along with her two children. “We haven’t been able to reach any government official there. We don’t have any information, other than from media reports. We are on our way to Theni now,” he said. Officials said that those stranded were among 65 trekkers, spread across Kolukkumalai near Munnar in Kerala and Theni in Tamil Nadu. The trek was organised by multiple groups independently without availing permission from the Tamil Nadu forest department, claimed an official.
“There have been forest fires in the area for the past 10 days. All the trekkers, many of them college students, had come from Chennai, Coimbatore and Tirupur. They began the trek from Munnar-Kolukkumalai, where they stayed Saturday night. They were trapped in the fire as they were coming down to Bodinayakkanur via the Korangani area, a popular route which takes a day,” said a senior forest official.
“They may have strayed from the trekking path and landed up in narrow gullies on their way to Korangani. Shortage of lighting equipment has delayed the rescue operation,” said the official. Officials said Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam and Forest Minister Dindigul C Sreenivasan are among those who have reached Bodinayakkanur, the nearest town. Senior police officers are monitoring the rescue along with over 200 personnel backed by armed forces, an anti-Naxal squad trained in forest terrain, and health workers, they said.
Officials said the incident was first reported by some of the trekkers over mobile phones to their families who alerted police, which launched the rescue around 5.30 pm. Speaking to reporters, Sitharaman said at least four helicopters are ready to resume rescue operations on Monday morning. “We are sending 10 commandos to reach the spot by midnight with adequate medical aid,” she said.