In the aftermath of the forest fire tragedy in Kurangani Hills that has claimed 16 lives so far, the State government has temporarily banned trekking in reserve forests and protected areas.
The ban was expected after the young trekkers, mostly women, were found charred in a gorge on the twin grass hills as they were climbing down from Kolukkumalai.
Many experts say the Forest Department should have been pro-active and banned trekking in Bodi Hills before March itself since the area is prone to fires. Or, it could have regulated eco-tourism better and strictly monitored the movement of visitors, many of whom are likely to be fresh to the terrain.
A proper method of raising alarms in the event of a forest fire, as well as communicating those alarms down the chain of command may need to be worked out. Some foresters are suggesting site-specific protocols in addition to the existing ones.
There is a wealth of information and well-worked standards available on response strategies and avoiding tragedies. The Kurangani fire is a wake-up call to the State forest department to put in place practices that would balance eco-tourism with safety concerns.
The ‘Spatial and temporal analysis of decadal forest fire data (2006-2015)’ published by the Forest Department last March reveals that forest fires in Tamil Nadu start during January itself, increase during February and peak during March. The number of incidents drops down during April and tapers off during the onset of monsoon. Nearly 48% of forest fire incidents in Tamil Nadu were reported during March and 72.4% in February and March.
When the detected fire incidents during this decade were overlaid with beat maps to assess the frequency of fire occurrence, it was found that at least one fire incident was detected in 638 beats — a beat is a specified area inside the forest.
Of them, 21 beats were classified as very highly sensitive (with 20 and more reported fire incidents). Bodi Kurangani South is a beat that is classified as highly prone to fire in February-March of any year. Two other beats in Bodi Hills, Athiyoothu and Ulakkarauttiar, are in the category “high” where 15 to 19 fire incidents have occurred. In short, the warnings were there, in-house.
A week later, there is still controversy over who granted access to the trek. The Forest Department says the only “authorised” trek is from Kurangani to Top Station and not to Kolukkumalai, which is a risky trek used by the estate workers to come down for their ration supply or weekly requirements.
Of the two groups, only Erode-based Tour de India Holidays has produced the entry pass. Unfortunately, the organisers of Chennai Trekking Club have perished in the tragedy. Certain that the group did not go through the check-post which is about 1 km away from the Kurangani village, forest officials are still clueless as to how they got into the trek. People in Kurangani and Kolukkumalai say the treks happen in this “unauthorised” route also, now and then if not frequently.
For trekking in reserve forests, DFO permission is mandatory as per rules. “From the time eco-tourism began, no one gets permission from the District Forest Officer except scientists and researchers,” says a field level staff of the department.
“The forest department suddenly claims that there is only one authorised route. Trekking has been going on along a few treks in Kurangani hills for many years,” says a tour guide in Theni district, requesting anonymity.
Theni district forest officials say there may be a few cases when the local guides entice the adventure spirit in the young trekkers by promising to take them on a challenging route and thereby take the risky route. “People have to be aware. Even in the Kurangani case, the local guide who took one group had alerted everyone to the fire and took the escape route early to be able to rescue many, including children,” a forest officer points out, explaining why the locals, part of the eco-development committees formed by the department, should be there as field guides instead of relying on experts alien to the vagaries of local terrains.
Tamil Selvan, a Madurai-based tour operator, says, “Even the experienced tend to panic in such circumstances. In this case, it appears this is what happened. The trekkers have to think fast and take the escape routes as early as possible without any delay.”
Controversy surrounds the fire alerts. Only the records and communication between the Forest Survey of India, Forest headquarters in Chennai and Theni District Forest Office could solve the mystery over when and if the alerts were generated and to whom they were communicated. Forest officials say even if the alert came via mail or SMS, the DFO’s office will have to communicate it to the field staff, who mostly work in terrains where there’s no mobile network, and it takes a couple of hours to mobilise personnel and reach the particular spot.
When rescue personnel had to climb up steep slopes, only the fittest were able to make it to the spot and it took them close to two hours. “There are no roads, only trekking routes. The swiftness in reacting to forest fires depends on terrains and communication. Also, the forest staff in the district were fighting a few more major forest fires in Theni and Bodi hills during the same time, that too with only 40% of staff strength,” a senior officer avers.
According to locals, a farmer had set fire in his farm some six kilometres away which had spread gradually over time to become aggressive and torch the two grass hills on that fateful afternoon. Officials are still probing the cause of the fateful fire.
In the aftermath of the incident, Iyshwarya Seshadri, a Chennai-based consultant who has gone on treks to Kurangani Hills and Himachal Pradesh, said that she wasn’t sure how her family would react if she brought up plans to go on a trek in the future.
“We went as a group of 18 trekkers, which included around four people from the organisation as well as a local guide who was also a part of the forest department. He seemed to know the place very well,” she recalled about a trek she had gone on Kurangani hills in November 2017. When asked if they had been told about the permissions necessary, she said that while it hadn’t come up as a precursor, the organisers did tell them during the trek that it was important to seek out the forest department ahead of the trek and that treks would be cancelled if they weren’t allowed there.
Iyshwarya said that she vividly remembered the trek downhill being extremely challenging. “There was tall lemon grass and any time a group of people seemed to be lagging behind, a few of the organisers would stay back and accompany them,” she said.
Iyshwarya said the topic of forest fires did not come up in any of their discussions. “We were however strictly not allowed to handle fire and were clearly told beforehand that no cigarettes were allowed. Any cooking or bonfires were handled only by our guide or the organisers,” she added.
“There isn’t enough of a trekking culture in Tamil Nadu and it hasn’t been actively promoted by the government either, despite the large mountain wilderness areas in the State,” said Varun Gunaseelan, a mountaineer from Chennai. “While it is important to have regulations in place, there is also a lack of infrastructure that people interested in trekking can seek out,” he said.
Reacting to the recent announcement by the Forest Department to review the fire sensitivity and safety aspects of forest areas before opening them out for trekking, Mr. Gunaseelan said that this would give the department a better chance at understanding and promoting safe treks.
“The assessment should be a multi-stakeholder effort where the officials rope in locals, trekkers, mountain guides, wilderness first responders, tourism representatives and meteorologists, among others, to create systems to identify safe trails, educate trekkers, train guides and provide relevant information,” he said.
Need for protocol
Rajeev K. Srivatsava, a retired IFS officer, has a Ph.D. in Forest Fire. During his stints at Anamalai and Mudumalai Tiger Reserves as field director, he has applied his knowledge on the field. “Apart from the regular awareness amongst the villagers who live along the forest and visitors, which is critical, pre-planning and regular drills on escape methods and routes have to be devised corresponding to the landscapes and forest types,” he says.
Insisting that a protocol is mandatory in every vulnerable beat, he said that already pre-emptive measures like fire lining, controlled burning and patrolling were being followed. “But once the protocol is in, the processes will be followed assiduously,” he emphasises.
At Mudumalai, a dozen strategic points were chosen during the vulnerable season between January and April to look out for smoke and fire in the wild. A centralised disaster management centre was set up and more personnel were roped in. Once the fire is reported, then the team should be dispatched as early as possible, as after six to eight hours, the fire will turn aggressive, he notes. While the forest officials know how to handle forest fires, capacity building also helps, he emphasizes.