Killer forest fire was manmade, say experts

A team of IAF personnel, including a medical team, based at Sulur airbase in Coimbatore preparing for the rescue operation on Monday. (PTI)  

Chennai: Nature conservationists and officials on Tuesday said the forest fire that killed nearly a dozen hikers in the Western Ghats was a manmade tragedy even as one more person in the ill-fated group succumbed to burns. Monday night's death at the Government Rajaji Hospital at Madurai took the toll to 11.

The experts also dismissed claims that the three dozen-strong expedition team had paid an entry fee to the forest department to trek up the Kurangani hills in Tamil Nadu's Theni district.

Saravanan Chandrasekaran, founder of the Canopy Nature Academy, an environmental organisation not linked in any way to the expedition, said the fire was definitely manmade.

"This fire must have been caused by either the hikers themselves or villagers because the Western Ghats has never had a natural fire so far," Saravanan said.

Badrasamy Chinnasamy, former district forest officer, appeared to concur, saying tribal people do set fire to grass as it helps in the growth of new fodder for cattle.

Saravanan dismissed claims that the hikers - many of them young techies - paid Rs 200 in fees to the forest department as total "rubbish", saying no one would have permitted trekking for such a small amount.

According to him, there are only two areas in Tamil Nadu where trekking is permitted by the forest department - Topslip and Kothagiri. "Theni division (where the tragedy has happened) is not on the eco-tourism map at all," he pointed out.

A member of the trekking party, in a statement to the police, had reportedly said they paid Rs 200 per person as entry fee, a claim denied by officials, according to a PTI report.

The Chennai Trekking Club on Tuesday claimed the team had received an "entry pass" to proceed.

Chief minister E.K. Palaniswami has said the hikers had started on the expedition "without permission".

Environmentalist Kalidoss alleged the organisers of the expedition had made it an adventure trip.

"This club has not understood that the Western Ghats is one of the eight global biodiversity hotspots unfit for any adventure. Here you can only feel nature," Kalidoss said.

The trek had been organised to "conquer" south India's tallest peak to mark Women's Day. By Tuesday, seven of the 25 women in the group, were dead.

Ramasubramniam, chief conservator of forests, Coimbatore, who is in charge of the Nilgiris biosphere, said: "In the range under my charge we do not permit any hiker at all at present as any trekking inside the forests, especially where elephants regularly come, requires a lot of protection and guidance."

Local people said the fire broke out at noon on March 11. S. Sekar, an estate worker in Kolukkumalai and among the first to reach the spot, said he had not seen a blaze as intense as Sunday's in recent years.

Sources said the hikers, on their way down on Sunday, were trapped on a hillock, surrounded by fire. Many had jumped on boulders below to escape.

Evidence has emerged that the forest department didn't react as quickly as it should have to Forest Survey of India alerts of a "thermal anomaly" near the area where the blaze surrounded the group.

The Dehradun-based FSI, whose sensors detected the anomaly, sent out the initial alerts at 11.20am on Sunday and two more over the next three hours. It wasn't until 4.30pm that the forest department reacted.

R. Vijayalakshmi remembers spotting the fire from less than 100 yards away. "Until the moment we saw it, we had no idea that there was a forest fire raging in the hills," said the techie who escaped with minor burns.

Additional reporting by PTI


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