Theni forest fire: It all started with a panic call

Updated - March 14, 2018 01:21 am IST

Published - March 12, 2018 10:55 pm IST - MADURAI

 Collector Pallavi Baldev interacts with girls who were rescued from the forest fire on Sunday evening.

Collector Pallavi Baldev interacts with girls who were rescued from the forest fire on Sunday evening.

It was around 4.15 p.m on Sunday that Pallavi Baldev, who had taken charge as Theni Collector recently, received a call from a woman, who was part of a trekking group, informing her that she had just escaped from a wildfire near Kurangani and there were many stranded there.

“I do not know how she got my number. However, that call saved a lot of time since the information reaching me through other channels might have caused much delay,” Ms. Pallavi told The Hindu . In another happenstance, she was somewhere closer to Kurangani at that time to attend an awareness campaign in a village on wildfire.

“Wildfire in that region, although not exactly at the same hill, has been an issue for more than a week. Forest department would douse them or they themselves would get doused and then it will start again at a different place. Hence, for the past one week, we had launched a series of activities to address the issue,” Ms. Pallavi added.

Soon after she received the distress call, she and other officials made multiple calls to various departments to prepare for the situation. “One of the first things we did was to ask all ambulances in the district to move towards the spot. We also took steps to move ambulances from neighbouring districts.”

Though the forest department had received some information about the incident at that time, they did not have the information to grasp the magnitude of it. However, in less than an hour, Forest department, along with Fire and Rescue Services personnel and the police had started assembling at Kurangani with necessary aid like flash lights, water and glucose, to venture into the spot on the rescue mission.

Meanwhile the State government headquarters was alerted and they immediately started coordinating and providing guidance on how to go about the rescue operations.

A local body office, located closer to the spot, was soon turned into sort of a war room for coordinating the activities. “I, along with other few other officials, decided not to reach the spot and instead stay at the local body office since we had to be at a place with mobile coverage, landline phones and other facilities to coordinate the activities,” she said.

In the meantime, the Indian Air Force was also alerted, but they could not start the operations immediately since it had turned dark by then. “We decided not to wait till the dawn and began rescue operations with the resources we had,” she said.

First group rescued within an hour

The people who ventured into the forest for the rescue included locals familiar with the terrain, Forest Department personnel, fire and rescue personnel, and predominantly the police.

Within an hour after the rescue operations began, the first group of around ten survivors, who managed to escape the fire with bruises and scratches, were brought to the government hospital at Bodinaickanur.

This group provided crucial information to the officials on the precise location where the incident took place and the number of people stranded there, following which the rescue operations began more focussed and intensified.

WhatsApp group

A WhatsApp group was started with all officials from various departments to share information, clarify details and also demand help from others. “Our phones were constantly engaged and could not make a lot of calls. WhatsApp proved to be an efficient way for multi-way communication and coordination,” Ms. Pallavi said.

Lauding everyone involved in the rescue, Ms. Pallavi said that they risked their own safety to rescue others. “Importantly, despite being a Sunday, as the news spread, lot of employees at various levels from different departments started automatically turning up asking how they could contribute,” she said.

Throughout the night, survivors were brought down hill by the rescue teams, by carrying on their shoulders and make-shift stretchers. Though few survivors were initially taken to the government hospital in Bodi, as the nature of burn injuries proved to be severe, the others were taken straight to the Government Medical College Hospital in Theni.

“As and when each ambulance was leaving from the spot, we called up people at Theni hospital and they were ready to receive the patients,” Ms. Pallavi said.

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