The forest fire that claimed the lives of 10 trekkers in Kolukkumalai near Kurangani in Theni district could have been more tragic had estate workers not chipped in to assist rescuers. Soon after the fleeing survivors alerted the Kurangani police station around 3.30 p.m. on Sunday, the local police sought the help of estate workers, mostly Madhuva and Paliyar tribes, who responded almost instantly.
With the forest fire fanned by heavy winds spreading fast, the tribal people, who are well versed with the jungle terrain and escape routes, led the police and ambulance staff to the affected areas. While little could be done to move victims with severe burns, more than a dozen others who could move on their own were guided to safer zones.
According to K. Venkadapathy, 38, a resident of Bodi and a trekking enthusiast, anxiety coupled with lack of knowledge in both jungle terrain and intensity of forest fire was the main reason for the casualties. But for the assistance of the local tribal people, rescuers who first walked to the fire hit zone would not have been able to reach the area where the trekkers were trapped.
“The forest fire has been there for about a week now. It spread like wild fire due to unusual winds in the last three days. Even now (Monday evening), there is fire spreading in Dewaram and Kumuli forest areas. The fire could be either man-made or natural, but someone taking advantage of the discontent brewing among farmers engaged in cultivation in forest areas who staged a demonstration in Bodi 10 days cannot be ruled out,” he said.
An ambulance driver and his friends were the first to see the plight of victims and they sent video clips from their mobile phones that were widely shared.
Mr. Venkadapathy said dusk fell around 6 p.m., making it difficult even for trained security personnel to move towards the disturbed area by walk. There was no information from the uphill, since there was no mobile network or any other communication facilities there.