Theni forest fire: First responder's tale

By A Harsha Vardhan Published on Mar 13, 2018 02:53 PM IST

Chennai: In light of the recent tragedy where 11 trekkers died caught in a forest fire that engulfed the Kurangani area of Theni district, a police officer who was one of the first responders in the rescue mission recalls heart melting scenes that he witnessed:

"I was among the 250 police personnel from Theni and Erode who were involved in the rescue operations. The fire started at around 2.30 pm on Sunday. It spread rapidly fueled by the dry straw grass which were over 10 feet in height and had grown wildly.

"The Theni police first received information of the fire at around 3 pm from an ambulance driver. Later, an army officer, Bagiyaraj who was in the area, ventured into the forest and saw the harrowing scenes of the forest fire.He gave us details of the whereabouts of the some of the people who were trapped in the burning melee.

"Immediately 100 police personnel under Dindugul DIG Joshi Nirmal and Theni District Superintendent Bhaskar were pressed into action. Following this, Dindigul District Superintendent, Sakthivel and DSP Mohanraj also went inside the forest with another team of 100 policemen in which I was there.

"Then the para-military forces and Disater response force from Coimbatore arrived at the spot with their medical teams. The role of the common folk of Kurangani and people living on the mountains and the foot-hills in the rescue operations was a major one. They worked with the officials and ground forces and guided.

"By 3 am we had rescued most of the people who were struggling for their lives. Since we decided to concentrate first on the people who were fighting for their lives instead of retrieving bodies of the dead, we managed to avoid further causalities.

"Around 6 am on the next day, an army helicopter came and retrieved the bodies of the nine dead people.

"The rescued people told us that they scattered from their group after they saw the fire. They couldn't find their way out from the tall grass. There were no proper guides to get them out of the forest. But, the 10 people who had taken a guide along had escaped the fire through another route after the guide sensed the smoke from afar.

"The people who went without the guide did not take the smoke seriously and that was why they were trapped. There is a huge gorge about 40 feet deep in between the grassland. These people who went without the guide, ran in fear and fell inside the gorge. They were the first victims of this incident. The rest of the people who managed to avoid the gorge got stuck in the wild-fire.

"The scenes we witnessed brought tears to my eyes. We witnessed the charred bodies of two people who had died holding onto each other. We saw women amidst the flames crying in pain and asking for help. They said that they felt that they were alive only after seeing us.

"We noted down their cell phone numbers and immediately informed their relatives. The 24-hour rescue operations finally ended at 11 am on Monday, their cries and shouts for help still ring in my ears. The scenes that we witnessed are unforgettable and will forever be etched in our memory."

A FOREST OFFICER's LAMENT...

Every weekend, we see trekking groups wearing T-Shirts with slogans like 'save mountains, save nature and climb for health, who come asking for permission to enter the forests.

If we refuse permission citing safety reasons, they make phone calls to their relatives or friends and somehow get recommendations from higher officials. In such cases, we are forced against our better judgement to grant them permission.

These people do not know about the mountains or forests. They do not know about disaster management and have no experience on how to provide first aid aid in case of accidents.

These people come from 500/ 600 kms away in 2000 cc diesel guzzling, carbon-di-oxide emitting vehicles wearing green t-shirts proclaiming to save nature.

There is no need for anyone to do such things to save nature or be one with it. Your life is priceless, so please refrain from such such activities.'