Kodaikanal’s big blaze

The first major forest fire in the past 15 years

Updated - May 17, 2024 05:16 pm IST

Published - May 17, 2024 03:40 pm IST

Forest fire in Kodaikanal

Forest fire in Kodaikanal

A. Arulsamy, an area councillor of Kodaikanal, was driving with his friends to visit the Murugan temple in the village of Poombarai on May 3, when his car was stopped and asked to turn back. He could see a fire burning in the forest on one side of the road. “There were ashes on the other side and a lot of smoke, too,” he recalls.

Wildfires are common across the Palani Hills in February and March, the driest months of the year. But the forest department was not prepared for the scale of the inferno that raged between April 26 and May 4. A spark from an electric pole started the fire, which soon spread into the forest. Wind velocity and the enormous fuel load — in the form of layers of dry eucalyptus leaves accumulated on the ground over the years — helped spread the fire, fast and furiously.

Also read: Not all forest fires in Kodaikanal hills are accidental

District Forest Officer Yogesh Kumar Meena, who spent three days and nights in the forest with his field staff, says, “During this fire incident, we learned that the best guides are our local staff and people. They know the way in and out.” Around 200 locals formed a human chain to transport water from the roadside deep into the forest, where no vehicles or heavy machinery could reach. Traffic heading towards Poombarai and Mannavanur was also blocked to allow water tankers free movement.

Forest and fire service men trying to extinguish a fire in Kodaikanal

Forest and fire service men trying to extinguish a fire in Kodaikanal

“We had to call teams from various divisions, up to Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga, Theni, Madurai, Anamalai Tiger Reserve, and Udumalpet,” says Meena. Ten kilometres in, they created a fire line — a gap of 20-30 feet of land cleared of foliage so that the blaze runs out of fuel to burn when it crosses it — to contain the blaze.

After days of fighting the raging flames, the fire was contained within 300 hectares of forest land. Most of the trees that burned down were eucalyptus, wattle and pine — all invasive species and part of artificial plantations. “The canopy of shola trees, thankfully, is as it is,” he says.

Manmade disasters
Unfortunately, most forest fires are caused by humans, either intentionally or otherwise. For instance, farmers set fire to clear their land of debris, and at times, it crosses the boundary and gets out of control. Tourists are another big red flag. They often enter forests laden with alcohol, and leave the empty glass bottles behind. Traces of residual alcohol could catch fire when sunlight hits it at a high temperature.

Karvin Antony, an eco-watcher in Kodaikanal’s Forest Department and one of the men on-site, states that he has never witnessed a fire of such magnitude. When the delayed rains finally made an appearance on May 4, “no words could describe our happiness”, he says. Nature took care of itself.

Going forward, Meena states that “we are going to have more coordinated efforts and awareness programmes with the local community. We are also planning to give training to a few specialised people.”

The writer is based in Kodaikanal.

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