Wildlife enforcers in the district have stepped up vigil against natural and manmade forest fires prior to the onset of summer.
Forest Range Officer, Palode, D. Anil said that a fire had destroyed at least three acres of ecologically fragile grasslands at a private estate near Ponmudi late on Saturday. The fire was reported from the forested area near Karuppaswamy temple on the Kallar-Ponmudi route at 11 p.m.
Fire engines were rushed to the spot and it took two hours of hectic fire fighting to the douse the blaze. Mr. Anil said it was not a natural forest fire and the grasslands had been deliberately burned. The Forest Department has registered a First Information Report in connection with the incident of suspected arson.
Forest enforcers said the grasslands at Ponmudi and those inside the Neyyar and Peppara wildlife sanctuaries were highly vulnerable to forest fires during summer.
They said that the increasing human incursion into forests, partly due to unchecked the promotion of eco-tourism, led to the entry of a large number of people into forested areas.
Most fires were caused inadvertently by visitors and there was a pressing need to limit the number of sightseers to ecological hotspots such as Agasthyarkoodam in Neyyar wildlife sanctuary. Hundreds of acres of forests are destroyed or degraded in mostly manmade fires annually in the State.
During the Agasthyarkoodam trekking season, forest enforcers and guides daily removed considerable amount of urban refuse (mostly discarded plastic bottles, covers, chocolate wrappers, food leftovers, and cigarette lighters) on either side of the trekking path.
Forest Department enforcers said that they had drawn scores of kilometres of fire lines, a 5.2-m gap in the undergrowth, to help prevent wildfires from spreading.
They have recruited scores of men from tribal settlements inside forests to act as “fire watchers” and alert the department immediately in the event of a bushfire. Sheds have been set up for them at vulnerable points inside the forests, chiefly Meenmutti, Thalamutti and Ana Nerathi.
Officials said that uncontrolled wildfires destroyed the biodiversity of forests and degraded the environment. They said the grasslands in Ponmudi were particularly vulnerable given the large number of visitors to the spots on weekends and holidays.