As the fire broke out in many areas of Athirapally, help came in the form of a 100-member strong brigade to help quash the flames.

The forest cried for help and we went How a FB post got Kerala to fight a wildfire
news Human Interest Friday, March 23, 2018 - 10:15

For three days since March 9, the hills of Athirapally glowed red. Burning trees turned to charcoal stumps, tall grass was reduced to stubble and countless snakes and turtles were scorched to death.

As the flames continued to eat into the green cover, officials at the Pariyaram forest range spread word about the wildfire. However, little did they know that help would come in the form of a 100-member strong arsenal from across Kerala, ready to douse the flames in the forest.

“As the fire began to break out in several spots, I mentioned to Baiju Vasudev, a green activist and photographer from Athirapally that dousing it was getting out of our control. Baiju sought help via a Facebook post and told us that volunteers would be arriving the next morning to help,” said Ramanathan, a section forest officer at Konnakuzhi station in Pariyaram range.

As promised, help came early on March 13. Volunteers travelled from as far as Kollam and Kannur in buses and bikes to join the forest officers.

“Once we saw the post, we began to share and post on multiple Whatsapp groups. We informed volunteers that fire had broken out at Vadamuri in Athirapally and asked those interested to assemble at the forest range office as early as possible. In a few hours, we started receiving several calls from people,” said Jamal Panambad, a member of 14India Green Army, a community working for nature conservation.

Around 80 members of green communities flocked to Athirapally and 20 individuals came from neighboring areas to trek up the flaming hills.

“The response was thrilling. A group had arrived at the range office by 6 am itself. These guys trekked up the hill, cut down flaming branches, cleared grassy areas and stamped the fire out until 4 in the evening,” said Jamal.

The group of volunteers were diverse in every way, according to Jamal

“The youngest in our group was a 19-year-old and the oldest was probably around 50. The most inspiring volunteer was a disabled man who helped contain the fire with his one hand. He was part of the early morning group and worked to quell the fire until the evening,” Jamal added.

Most of volunteers came from local nature conservation groups. These included members from Jamal’s green army, Baiju K Vasudevan foundation for nature lovers, the Thattekad nature lovers, Green Caps and Nanma Maram – an organization associated with Koodu, a nature magazine.

“We also had students from the Light Magic School of Photography, where I work as a professor. These students, after the day’s work has gone to a stream when they spotted smoke nearby. Along with the forest officials, they worked again to contain the fire. This went on until 3 am the next day,” said Jamal.  

Struggles, burns and injuries 

The groups which trekked high up the hills had no access to food until they came down, according to Jamal.

“A few resorts nearby agreed to supply food and water to the members. However, we couldn’t reach those who went high up the hills. They worked until evening without food, until the water they carried with them ran out,” he said.

Fortunately, none among the volunteers sustained injuries but for slight burns and bruises from trekking.

“One of the forest officers slipped and fell on a hot rock and scalded his back. Apart from this, it was all minor bruises and scratches. We had asked volunteers to carry anti-burn medication, gloves, boots and water cans with them before coming. So they were equipped to deal with the challenges,” Jamal added. 

Man-made catastrophe

The areas which caught fire were Vettilapara and Pillapara, Kenalkunnu and Kudakallam thode and a portion on top of the samara block. All the areas that caught fire were hills,” said Ramanathan.

Wildfires which are quite common during dry seasons and are even considered healthy to maintain equilibrium in the jungles however, have increasingly become man-made.

“Anyone can spark a forest fire if they are not careful especially since the forest is very dry at this time. Sometimes these are careless trekkers or resort owners who create campfires for their guests. Even people from tribes who go to collect honey or hunt small animals can cause fires. However, this is rare as they usually know the laws of the forest,” said Jamal.

On tackling fires in the future 

Despite, the success this year, activists who helped this time feel that this is not the right way to do it.  

“The government needs to set up a dedicated and trained fire fighting crew. The forest department is ill equipped to handle big fires and many of the volunteers who are eager to pitch in may not know how to act when close to the flames. This makes it an extremely dangerous exercise for them,” Jamal said.

The incident comes after 18 trekkers lost their lives in a forest fire that broke out in the Kurangani hills forest fire in Tamil Nadu. 

‘It was frustrating to see the apathy of the Panchayat officials in Athirapally. The government needs to wake up and take charge of these events as many trekkers are unaware of firefighting techniques. We really hope the State quickly builds a trained wildfire fighting squadron,” said Jamal

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