Theni forest fire nothing short of man-made disaster; multitude of human errors likely behind tragedy that killed nine trekkers

Naveen Nair

The tragedy that struck the forests of Theni in the southern district of Tamil Nadu on Sunday, which took 11 young lives, leaving a few more battling at various hospitals, is believed to be nothing short of a man-made disaster.

Though the unsuspecting trekkers were left to the fury of nature, it is now beyond doubt that it was a number of human errors that led to the tragedy.

The Tamil Nadu forest department on Tuesday suspended the Kurangani forest range officer for his inability to prevent what the government claims was an unauthorised trekking in spite of a ban on such activity on those treacherous hills.

But the big question that still remains unanswered is how did such a raging fire start in the first place? Environmentalists have completely ruled out natural causes for the fire and if locals are to be believed, the fire had been raging in the areas adjoining to Kurangani for well over three days before the trekkers ran into it.

Kurangani hills in Tamil Nadu's Theni district caught fire on Sunday. News18

Kurangani hills in Tamil Nadu's Theni district caught fire on Sunday. News18

Also, the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) in Hyderabad has confirmed to Firstpost that since 6 March till the ill-fated trek commenced on 11 March, at least 32 active fires had been reported from the Theni forests alone and that its information had been passed on to the Forest Survey of India.

If so, why was there no early warning system that could have deterred the trekkers? Why did the forest officials not stop the trekkers from entering a protected forest area without permission, especially when a fire was raging close by? Have the reserve forests of the Western Ghats degenerated to a free for all experience?

Who started the fire?

Firstpost reached out to a few expert voices in the region who have a history of more than four decades of working in the area to help understand what could have started the blaze.

"This is not the first time that such a fire has happened. I have seen at least 100 such fires in the last seven years. There is definitely a pattern to it which means it is not just the natural forest fire that extreme heat may give rise to. There is a human hand to it no doubt," Tamil Selvan, an environmental activist who lives next to Kurangani hills told Firstpost.

While on Sunday night itself, hardly a few hours into the tragedy, the Tamil Nadu state government was quick to put the blame on the trekkers for not taking permission before entering the forests, when it came to how and where the fire originated from, they have no words.

Selvan's words are echoed more strongly by others in the area. There is an opinion forming among environmental experts in Theni that a cover-up by a section of the forest staff itself could have led to the fire's origin.

The argument goes like this. It is in summer that census of schedule timber trees like teak, sandal and rosewood is taken into account and a file is maintained as per forest circles or zones by the forest department.

If by any chance a discrepancy is found in the schedule timber list, the concerned forest guard or ranger are held responsible for the missing trees which then goes on to affect their promotion in the service or even a recovery from their salaries.

Hence, it has become a common practice for forest staff to burn tree stumps of such 'disappearing trees' to cover up their tracks, says AV Naku Muthu, a prominent blogger and an environmental expert based out of Theni.

"I am not saying that this has happened in Kurangani forests. But certainly in close by Bodimettu, I have seen this and sometimes such small fires get out of hand due to the extreme heat. See the other man-made causes like cattle grazers burning away wilted grass or firewood collectors forgetting to extinguish a fire are mostly non-existent today as cattle grazing in forests is banned and after the state government gave away gas connections to all, hardly anyone collects firewood in this area now," Muthu told Firstpost.

Bodimettu is hardly 16 kilometres away from Kurangani hills which makes Muthu's theory stand till it gets refuted and proved otherwise. With the forest department tightlipped, the suspicion only grows by the day.

VK Francis is a retired deputy conservator of forests in Kerala. During his tenure as the range officer in Devikulam, which is hardly 25 kilometres away from Bodimettu forests, Francis says he had also come across such practices which when discovered used to be dealt with an iron hand.

Rescue operations were carried out by the Indian Air Force and local authorities after the Theni fire. Firstpost/Naveen Nair

Rescue operations were carried out by the Indian Air Force and local authorities after the Theni fire. Firstpost/Naveen Nair

"There have been cases of forest staff engaging in such acts. Disgruntled guards have been found to set fire to forests. But then they are only rare incidents. I am not sure in Kurangani that could have been a possibility since Kurangani does not have any big trees. But even I don't think it's a natural fire. Certainly, it seems it was started by someone," Francis told Firstpost.

A mistaken paradise

Though a number of social media messages and advertisements would want trekkers to believe otherwise, Kurangani is far from a trekkers' paradise. Rather it is a trail that had all the potentials of meeting a tragedy anytime.

K Sabu is range officer at the Chinakkanal Forest Range in Munnar and being close to the Kurangani hills knows the terrain better than many others.

"The path from Kolukkumalai to Kurangani, which this team took, is one of the most treacherous routes which is tough for even forest people like us. So, if you have a fire in such a terrain, escape routes are minimal. On one side you have a deep gorge and on the other a steep climb. So, most of them died falling into the gorge with burn injuries which also made rescue that much difficult," Sabu told Firstpost.

What Sabu said is proved by the gruesome videos that emerged out of the place shot by people hoping to send an SOS out. Trekkers with a high degree of burns could be seen crying out for help lying in between boulders before succumbing to their injuries.

But Sabu also added that Kurangani continued to attract high adventure tourists who usually take a lot of precaution before taking tourists out for such activity. "It's good for such adventure where you can climb a lot. But for normal trekking, it's just not the terrain. But a lot of clubs somehow sneak in with people without permissions and no form of security to see the big windy plains which are a great sight," added Sabu.

The 11 who lost their lives between Sunday and Monday are the latest of such gangs hoping to enjoy the thrill.

"Having worked in this division twice, I can say that Kurangani hills are a thorny umbrella forest. I just do not understand what thrill people get by trekking in such an area where every step u take is met with thorny bushes. So, even if u want to move fast, you cannot... forget about running from a fire," added Francis.

Violations galore

The trekking in Kurangani was organised by a 10-year-old club called the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC) run by a Belgian named Peter Van Geit who, according to the Chennai police, is absconding since the accident took place.

The CTC is presently under investigation for evading registration and not having permission for most of the treks it had undertaken in the past.

Sam T Samuel, who runs Kalypso Adventures, an adventure tour company based out of Kochi, takes tourists on trekking to different parts of India. He says that such unauthorised trekking groups that have mushroomed over social media give little importance to the safety of the trekkers.

"Trekking is not a high-risk activity. But even that needs a degree of risk assessment just like what you do before crossing a road. But when people go into such activities without leadership and experience, they take it very casually," Samuel told Firstpost.

He goes on to add, "They think, 'what is going to go wrong if we trek in Kurangani? Perhaps nothing'. It's not a high-risk area. But something unexpected is what you should always worry about while trekking. That's where the risk assessment comes in. For them, a fire wasn't an expected thing that day and they were not prepared for it. They just scattered and ran. There was no one to guide them."

But those who raise their voice for the forests say that the time has come in India to make trekking rules stricter and demarcate specific routes, only which can be used for trekking inside forests.

"There should only be a legal path for trekking. Otherwise either the forest will be affected or those trekking will be in danger. What happened in Kurangani is an utter failure on the part of the forest department, which could not prevent such people from illegally entering the forest. The only solution is to ban trekking in all forests from February to June every year. Otherwise, it is suicidal," says Harish Vasudevan, a noted environmental lawyer.

That the forest officials have been hand-in-glove with such illegal entrants is no secret. Many say it is the rampant commercialisation in the name of tourism that has got the average forest guard or ranger thinking more about tourism and less about the forest itself.

"If you look at the forest department now, it functions best only at tourist locations simply because that is where the money is. This has forced forest conservation by itself to take a back seat. Now, how do you blame a forest guard who happily takes money to allow a few illegal visitors?" asks a senior forest officer in anonymity.

The Tamil Nadu government has, meanwhile, declared a detailed probe into the tragedy. It remains to be seen if some concrete action comes through to not only protect those who enter the forests but more importantly the forest itself, or whether this will be another hogwash.

Also See: Theni forest fire claims 9 lives, 27 rescued: IAF completes search operations; Tamil Nadu govt orders probe

Theni forest fire updates: Tamil Nadu CM Palaniswamy orders probe, says trekking expedition lacked permission

Theni forest fire claims 9 lives, 21 rescued: Nirmala Sitharaman says 16 Garuds deployed to help trapped trekkers

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