Disaster

Death in the hills

Print edition : April 13, 2018

A raging forest fire in the Kurangani hills in the Western Ghats near Theni in Tamil Nadu on March 11. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Trekkers being brought down by local guides from the hill on March 11 evening. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Injured trekkers on the hills being put into an IAF helicopter that was part of the search-and-rescue operation. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A team of Armed Reserve Police personnel and local youths, around 50 of them, was engaged in the rescue efforts. Here, the body of a trekker being carried to the base camp at Kurangani village. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Atulya Mishra, Secretary, Department of Revenue and Disaster Management, who is the one-man commission probing the tragedy, visiting the hills on MArch 22. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A forest fire claims almost an entire team of trekkers at Kolukkumalai in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district, and even as official rescue efforts come up short, the local people launch a night-long operation to search for and bring down survivors.

WHAT was a fun-filled trek turned into a nightmare for a group of 36 young women and men at the 2,160-metre-high Kolukkumalai in the Western Ghats in Theni district of Tamil Nadu when they were caught in a raging forest fire. It all happened in a span of two hours on March 11. Twenty of them died, nine on the spot, and all but 10 of the others suffered burns to varying degrees.

It was a two-day trek organised as part of International Women’s Day by the Chennai-based Chennai Trekking Club (CTC) in coordination with Tour de India Holidays of Erode, and many of the participants were first-timers. The trekkers, 26 of them women in the age group of 20 to 28, enrolled for the adventure on social media and hailed from Chennai, Erode and Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu and from Kerala. There were three children too, who were among the 10 taken out to safety.

The magnitude of the tragedy was such that it shocked people across the country; Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded with grief over the loss of life. Ecologists were quick to point out that to their knowledge no single forest fire had claimed so many lives so far.

Of the 39 trekkers, three had dropped out midway citing health reasons and were taken to Suryanelli village across the border, in Kerala. The rest were on their way to the base camp at Kurangani village when the tragedy happened. While nine trekkers were found dead in the area, 17 suffered burns ranging between 30 per cent and 100 per cent and were taken to hospitals in Theni and Madurai; eleven of them died in hospital, taking the toll to 20 on March 23.

Two of the victims had 100 per cent burns, two had 99 per cent, one had 90 per cent, three had between 70 and 75 per cent, three between 60 and 65 per cent, and two between 50 and 55 per cent. The rest suffered between 30 and 55 per cent burns. The emergency prompted the State Health Department to form a special team of burns and trauma care specialists to coordinate treatment.

Fire-prone area

This is not the first time that CTC, adventure organisers of professional repute, has organised a trek on Kolukkumalai hill, classified as a “highly fire-prone” area in the Western Ghats. The club, according to its website, has been in the sport for long. Its counterpart in Erode, Tour de India Holidays, seems to have closed its website. The Theni District Police issued a lookout notice against Peter Van Geit, a Belgian settled in India since 1998 and the founder of CTC. He is said to be a professional trekker and a social activist. In fact, his services during the Chennai floods in 2015 are still remembered. D. Prabhu of Tour de India Holidays has been detained for interrogation.

CTC has expressed grief over the incident; two of its members, Arun and Vibin, lost their lives while attempting to save others. It, however, sought to distance itself from the criticism the forum has been facing. “Those who organised the Kolukkumalai trekking were professionals. The fury of nature cannot be predicted,” said Piyush Agarwal, an avid trekker. His wife, who was in the team, escaped with minor injuries.

Controversy over passes

The survivors are yet to overcome their trauma. One of them, A. Rajasekar, from Tiruppur, refused to talk to Frontline, while another, D. Monisha, pleaded that as memories of the incident continued to haunt her, she did not want to be disturbed. Many CTC members, including those who survived and those who suffered injuries, said they were pained at the attempt to “politicise” the tragedy. “Let them [State government] first set their systems right. They can blame others later,” said a Chennai-based trekker who survived the inferno. CTC members drew attention to the clarification that CTC had issued, saying that the members had received entry passes from the Forest Department permitting them to trek. “There has never been a ban on trekking in Kolukkumalai so far, at least officially,” they claimed.

But Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami refuted their views in the Tamil Nadu Assembly on March 19. Replying to a Calling Attention motion, he pointed out that the State government had not received any satellite-based fire alert from the Forest Survey of India, which monitors forest fires and alerts the States concerned about them. He said 12 passes alone were obtained for trekking between Kurangani and Top Station for a “stay in day”. “The trekkers, numbering more than 30, illegally ventured into the prohibited Kolukkumalai forest, which was situated above Top Station. No night stay was permitted either,” he further clarified.

The Chief Minister blamed the trekkers for not taking the “legally permitted route”. A forester, Jayasingh, has been placed under suspension. The Forest Department could not absolve itself of the responsibility of alerting the trekkers about the fire. Mobile phones were active on the hill, and the group could have been warned well in advance. Atulya Mishra, Secretary, Department of Revenue and Disaster Management, the one-man commission the State government appointed to probe the tragedy, visited Kurangani on March 22.

The attempts to absolve CTC of responsibility for the tragedy notwithstanding, it is difficult to shrug off some of the questions that are being asked of it. Besides a few seasoned trekkers, only one local guide, Ranjithkumar, accompanied the fairly large group. The inclusion of a few more native guides would have made the vital difference between life and death, say trekkers familiar with the terrain.

The trekkers assembled at Kurangani village near Bodinaickanur in the early hours of March 10. They split into two groups and climbed the hills. After visiting Top Station, which is 12 km from the village, they camped for the night at a tea estate guest house at Kolukkumalai. At dawn, they started the 7-km trek downhill on a less-travelled path instead of the safe one that local people use. As per the schedule, they were supposed to return to Kurangani village at about 5 p.m.

Lemongrass and smoke

The hills have some 3,000 hectares of grassland and shrubs, mainly deciduous, and are home to 20 tribal and settlers’ hamlets located intermittently. Both Tamil Nadu and Kerala share the mountain and forest ranges. The hills are well known for the lemongrass that grows on them over an extent of about 100 acres (40 hectares). This season the grass had grown to a height of about 10 feet (3 m) and obscured visibility into the distance. Also, the extreme surface air temperature of the pre-monsoon season and, as CTC called it, the “formation of an unusual depression in the Bodi valley” had made the hills warmer.

A few hours into the trek, the group decided to stop for lunch and some relaxation. At about 3:00 p.m., the guide, Ranjithkumar, noticed a thick pall of white smoke billowing from a distance downhill. By then the trekkers had split into tiny groups and drifted away into the expanses of the grassland, taking selfies on their mobiles. Ranjithkumar and the CTC’s trekkers, Arun and Vibin, realised the need to leave early and attempted to regroup the trekkers so that they could leave as a group. Unfortunately, that was not to be. “They wasted crucial time,” said a forester who took part in the rescue operation.

A strong wind in the uphill direction churned the fire into a menacing inferno. Incidentally, the fire that emanated in the lower reaches was not related to any climatic condition, though the mountain range has been vulnerable to such potentially hazardous incidents with its sweeping grasslands. “It came in waves,” recalled Monisha. The dry grass aided the easy spread of the fire.

“What I could gather from the trekkers was that before they could regroup, the fire had encircled them in quick time. They panicked and lost their focus and began to run blindly in the thick smoke and searing heat of tall burning grass. A few fell into a deep gorge and died,” said ‘Myna’ Babu, a native of Mutham hamlet near Kurangani, one of the several local people who volunteered for the rescue mission on the intervening night of March 11 and 12.

A group of nine trekkers who stuck with the guide escaped the inferno with minor injuries. “A girl who sustained 40 per cent burns told us when we carried her down in dhotis and bed sheets used as stretchers that they got scattered on the hill and were engrossed in sightseeing. By the time they realised the gravity of situation, it was too late,” Babu said. The survivors, he added, took an alternative trail to escape the fury of the fire. “Almost all others were either brought dead or had serious burns,” Babu said.

Rescue effort

People in the foothills got wind of the tragedy at about 4 p.m. The first warning was sounded at 4:30 p.m. when a trekker alerted Theni District Collector Pallavi Baldev over her mobile. (Survivors claimed that all major networks, barring a couple, were active.) Almost at the same time, a tribal woman who had come down from the hill alerted the police in Kurangani about the trekkers being trapped in the fire. It was only then that the enormity of the situation dawned upon all concerned. By then, the trapped girls had started sending SOS messages and making calls to known persons and relatives for help.

Meanwhile, M. Pallavi Baldev, alive to the fact that she had just two hours before darkness descended on the hills, mobilised all resources that were available to her. She informed the Chief Minister’s Office, which in turn alerted Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and sought Air Force assistance. The Defence Minister tweeted that two helicopters had been despatched from the Sulur Air Force base near Coimbatore to assist in the rescue operations. By the time the helicopters arrived in Theni, it was already 6 p.m. and darkness had fallen over the mountains, rendering an air rescue impossible.

The Collector led her team from the field. She supervised the operation from Bodinaickanur as there was no mobile connectivity at Kurangani. “We had to mobilise everything that was available then with us—all within the critical two-hour deadline. We alerted senior officials at the Secretariat in Chennai, who in turn sought assistance from the Defence Ministry. By 5:30 p.m. everything, including medical and paramedical staff, was in place. But since it was mountainous terrain, nightfall was early and swift,” she told Frontline.

Local people, who had intimate knowledge of the terrain and the forests, readily offered their support. With no access to satellite data on the hills and in the absence of other modern technology for use in disaster management, the Collector and other officials decided to put their faith in native wisdom. And it eventually turned into a community-based mitigation exercise.

“Everyone knew that leaving them [the trekkers] on the mountain all night would be disastrous. Hence a team of some 50 able-bodied youths drawn from the tribal people, the settlers, the plantation workers, members of the 108 emergency ambulance service and the Armed Reserve Police was cobbled up hastily to launch a search-and-rescue operation,” said Maripandi, leader of the CITU-affiliated Suryanelli Tea Plantation Workers’ Union, who was present there at that time. The team, armed with heavy-duty flashlights and carrying as much potable water as they could, scoured the hill all night for survivors.

The rescuers had to use dhotis, shirts and bed sheets provided by the local people to cover the burnt bodies and for the makeshift dholis in which the injured and the dead were brought down. “I came down with only my undergarment on since my dhoti was used to tie the dholis,” said Babu. The rescue teams had to trek in the dim light of distant forest fires to trace the injured and the dead who lay scattered in an area of 100 square metres. “We shifted the severely burnt first and the less injured in subsequent sorties since transporting them down was an excruciating job both for the rescuers and the victims. The dead were left there to be transported the next morning,” said Babu.

Drones help

The only modern tool that was of some assistance in the rescue effort was the drones operated by the Chennai-based Madras Institute of Technology’s Department of Aerospace Engineering. They were used to identify the exact location of the injured. The Air Force’s role was limited to transporting the dead to the base on March 12. Its two Mi-17 helicopters carried out a few reconnaissance sorties the previous day but seemed ill-equipped to deal with the emergency.

Babu and other local residents knew the mountainous terrain well because they frequented the tribal villages and the tea plantations for work. “We know the wind direction, animal behaviour and so on. The hill-forest’s profile is sober and docile but deceptive,” he said.

They conceded that they had never witnessed a tragedy of this magnitude. “One or two would die in occasional fires once in a few years. A forest guard died recently,” said a plantation worker. The uncut lemongrass was perhaps one of the main reasons for the extent of the tragedy. “In the past, an oily extract from the grass, a minor forest produce, was auctioned once a year as it was used as an ingredient in the preparation of Ayurvedic medicines. But for the past three years, for reasons unknown, the Forest Department has stopped conducting the auction,” a retired forest watcher said.

This grass has a pungent odour and is said to be highly inflammable, but tribal people use it as roofing material for their huts. At the time of the tragedy, nearly 25 hectares on the hill and the opposite Agamalai were on fire, suspected to be the result of a “man-made socio-natural hazard”, from February 27. CTC, in a communique, claimed that local farmers in the foothills burnt the grass as “a normal seasonal cultivation practice”.

“It was quite a surprise how the Forest Department could allow trekking on the hills when the fire could be noticed from down below,” said a Chennai-based trekker.

“They were at the wrong place at the wrong time. But they would not have realised the unpredictability of a deciduous forest on a hill such as Kolukkumalai,” said a tourist guide in Theni town. He concluded: “Unless you have a rich hands-on experience, similar to that of the natives, you should not venture into any unknown hill-forest territory like this.”

Many of those whom Frontline spoke to preferred to remain anonymous, saying that an inquiry had been instituted. A former Conservator of Forests said these fires could neither be predicted nor controlled. Since the wind was strong and sweeping at this time of the year, which was unique to the mountain ranges here, the fire had spread fast, he said. “The victims would have become dehydrated and suffocated. That is why they panicked,” he said. Many urged the State government to ban trekking in this region in the dry pre-monsoon period between February and April.

Ill-prepared forest department

An environmentalist pointed out that the Forest Department was hamstrung by the shortage of manpower. Many posts of conservators, rangers, guards and anti-poachers have been lying vacant for a long time.

“Today a single officer is manning a 140-kilometre-radius forest in Kurangani in the Theni division. Six conservator posts are lying vacant, while the budget allotment for fire management is negligible. A mere Rs.50,000 has been allotted to firefighting in the Theni division this year,” he said.

Trekking in deciduous forests needs extra precautionary care. It is yet to be ascertained whether the trekkers were equipped with the necessary toolkits for such an adventure.

“We do not know whether they carried the basic requirement of life-saving equipment for trekking,” said B. Raj Narayanan, a regular trekker who has logged about 500 hours so far. He said trekking in treacherous terrain, such as the one in Kolukkumalai, needed meticulous planning. “Above all, we should depend only on native knowledge, for which we need to take along local tribal people and forest guides without any hesitation,” he said.

Babu claimed that had the trekkers informed forest officials well in advance, they would have provided guides. “For a group of 30 and above, a minimum of four or five guides would be allotted. They are rich in native wisdom. In fact, they would have made the difference between life and death today,” he said.

The unregulated growth of resort-based ecotourism, which many environmentalists slammed, is said to have played a contributory role in disturbing the forests. They urged the State government to formulate stringent guidelines to regulate such activities.

Natural disaster statistics claim that about 1.43 lakh people were killed in 431 events between 1980 and 2010, with an average of 4,614 deaths per annum. On average, forest fire incidents account for 0.06 per cent of the disasters a year, say the disaster management expert Indrajit Pal and the oceanographer Tuhin Ghosh in their book Natural Hazards Management in Asia. They further say: “In India, around 50 per cent of the forest of 63 million hectares is prone to forest fire and annually 6 per cent of the forest area gets affected by forest fire, a majority of which is started by humans.”

Had a diligent disaster management and rescue apparatus been in place, the loss of lives could have been averted or at least minimised.

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