Theni fire
'The rangers should have never allowed the trekkers into the forest' says one rescue official to TNM.

At the Government Hospital in Theni, curt medical staff are scrambling to identify the family of victims among the crowd of locals and media persons. On this humid Monday afternoon, as wails of grief make their way across the grounds, their task ends in minutes.

Standing amongst the teary-eyed relatives is the aunt of 35-year-old Arun Prabahar, who was charred to death in a forest fire that trapped 39 trekkers on Sunday. The mountain enthusiast had led a 27-member team from the Chennai Trekking Club that went on a two-day trek at Kurangani Hills in Theni district on March 9. 

"He missed his eight-year-old son's birthday just to make it for this trek. He was that involved in the activity," his aunt manages to say. "His wife is on the way from Chennai. I can't imagine how she is going to look at his body. It is like a black burnt log. You can't even recognise him," she says, sobbing into the pallu of her saree. 

But it is only within the premises of this hospital that Arun is identified as a 'victim'. Outside this venue, the forest department and government machinery have spent the last 24 hours placing the blame for this horrific incident that has killed 10 people and left nine critically injured, on Arun and other organisers. 

How were they allowed in?

According to the Forest Department, the trekkers came in two groups. A team of 12 people from Erode via Tour De India Holidays and another team of 27 led by the Chennai Trekkers Club (CTC). The officials had initially told the media that all 39 trekkers had no permission to enter the reserved area. 

But TNM has accessed a police statement given by an organiser from Erode named Prabhu, about the procedure followed. He clearly states that Rs 200 was paid at a Forest Department check-post by all members before they commenced the trek. 

When questioned about this, the Forest Department changed its initial statement and said only the group from Erode had received permission to go on the trek. Forest officials claim that a dangerous fire was burning its way through the forest for close to a week, so the question is why was this permission granted to begin with?

"We had allowed to them to take a designated route. But they strayed from this," says Madurai Circle Conservator of Forests RK Jagenia, defensively. "If they did not move away, then they would not have been in the vicinity of the fire," he adds. 

The official tells TNM that the permission for the trek was given from the base of Kurangani Hills to a peak, a spot that offers a picturesque view. "The group, however, strayed to Kolukkumalai which has a private estate near the Kerala border. From there they began trekking down and that was not an approved route," says the conservator.

So, what about CTC?

"This CTC has entered the forest area without our permission or us noticing. The two groups have met at Kolukumalai on Sunday afternoon when the CTC team stopped to eat lunch there," he alleges. 

CTC, however, has come out with an official response to the mounting allegations against them, stating that necessary permissions were obtained. They further claim that the trekking route from Kurangani to Kollukumalai on top is a regular for both local villagers and trekkers. 

Forest officials shifting blame?

The statement given by Prabhu to the police shows that the two groups met on Saturday evening itself, much before the forest officer claims they did. 

"After we paid Rs 200 and received a receipt from the forest department, we left for the trek with a guide named Ranjith who was well aware of the terrain in Kurangani. We stopped our van in Kurangini and began climbing. We reached Kolukkumalai through Othumaram at around 6 pm (on Saturday) and set up tents there. And just behind us, a group of 26 people from Chennai led by Arun came up and set camp next to us," he stated. 

And the Forest Department didn't notice a large team of 27 people who came to the forest in broad daylight?

"Nearly 40% of Theni is covered in forests and the reserve here by itself is very vast. There are many gaps in the boundary and we have limited human resources. We can't be looking everywhere," says the Conservator of Forests.

Sources tell TNM that there is a vacancy of 50% in posts meant for forest officers in the district. "And anyway, this CTC has never come to us for permission. What they did is illegal," he adds. 

Even the Tamil Nadu government has been quick to come to defence of forest authorities. When TNM met Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam on the rocky pathway to the mountain, he assured us that an inquiry will be conducted into violations. But he seems convinced about who the guilty party is. "The trekkers never sought permission. They shouldn't trek here. Forest Department wasn't aware they were there," he says. 

Villagers and reporters on the ground told TNM that the fire had been raging on in different parts of the stretch for almost a week. “The rangers should have never allowed the trekkers into the forest,” one rescue official told TNM. 

So, was this the first time anyone was trekking up this path?

He turns sideways to glance at Forest Minister Dindigul Sreenivasan, who was also present at the spot before saying, "Yes, first time."

And that statement is completely false as there are many testimonies pouring out on social media from those who have been on the same trek.

The Theni Superintendent of Police Jeyaraman is perhaps the only authority to counter the 'no permission' claim. When TNM asked him how more than 30 trekkers made it past the forest rangers, he says, "Initial investigation show that they have paid Rs 250 to go on the trek to the forest rangers and received receipts."

And like the Conservator claims, were there any limitations on the routes they can take?

"No, it seems they were not informed of any. Further investigation will show what exactly happened," says the SP. 

A CTC member, who has been with the organisation for the last 9 years tells TNM, "If we had known about the forest fire, we would not have gone. It is just easy to pin the blame on us."

Organisers ill-equipped for trek?

On the morning of March 11, Arun's team began their descent far before the group from Erode. The two teams met again when they stopped for lunch at around 2pm. That is when, the guide with the Erode team allegedly announced that a forest fire was nearing them and they had to descend fast. 

And so, a single man was allegedly tasked with leading two teams with 39 people away from the fire. But they were too slow. The fire that had been raging and growing surrounded most of the trekkers and while Ranjith led some to safety, several were caught in the inferno. 

The email invite issued by CTC to participants says the trip will include a two-day trek from the Tamil Nadu-Kerala Border to Kolukkumalai. The trek level is described as “moderate”.

The CTC member tells TNM that participant safety is of utmost importance to them. But many have pointed out a few past instances that show the group has not been always truly prepared for the dangers that forests hold.

In 2012, a 25-year-old drowned in a pond while fleeing wild bees in the Nagari forest of Andhra Pradesh on a trek organised by the CTC. He had been a research scholar at IIT Madras.  

Reports suggested that the teams did not have a satellite phone to contact authorities in case of an emergency. The only reason an ambulance even made it to the spot, was because one of the trekkers, Vijayalakshmi managed to make a call to 108 using the feeble signal she received on her mobile phone. 

'Forest officials should have stopped them'

According to a forest official who spoke to TNM under the condition of anonymity, January to May is a season of forest fires in the reserve and the rangers all knew this. The long grass called 'Manjapul' by locals loses all moisture in this season and exists as dry cover on the mountain. And as the stalks rub against each other in the heat, it causes sparks that can lead to a fire. The officer rules out that the fires could be manmade. 

"The trekkers, with or without permission should not have been allowed inside. The forest department should have stopped them. Organisers themselves should have calculated the dangers," he says. "It is a ground fire and will keep spreading across the dry patches. In areas where the vegetation is green and lush, the fire cannot spread. The first mistake that these groups made was to walk through theradio 'Manjapul' (yellow grass). It leaves no space for any kind of escape," he adds. 

The officer tells us that the expected practice was to have one well-trained guide from the local community for every 10 trekkers.  "Only the Erode team had a guide. The Chennai people had no local support. And so, they were completely clueless as to how to tackle a situation like this. How can they carry out a trek of this manner without the necessary security measures in place?" he asks. 

CTC claims they had a local guide and four seasoned trekkers among them but clearly it wasn't enough for the number of participants. All four of the organisers, who led the trek, have died. 

The officer alleges that participants were not given any training on how to act in a crisis situation. According to Prabhu's statement, the trekkers got separated as they ran in all four directions to escape the fire. 

"More people could have escaped unhurt if there were more trained guides. Instead, panic had set in and they've run helter-skelter. Most of the bodies that we found, are face down and in awkward position because they have fallen from a height of 100-150 feet as they ran blindly," he explains. "The organisers did not have the requisite resources to embark on something this dangerous."

The anger will come

This situation could have been avoided if the state forest department had paid heed to the alerts they were already getting.  They allegedly ignored messages sent by the Forest Survey of India, whose thermal sensors had detected a 'thermal anomaly' near Bodi in Theni. 

According to a Times of India report, forest officials ignored three alerts, beginning with the first one at 11.20am on Sunday. They finally reacted following the 4.30pm alert.

If forest officials were aware that the group from Erode was trekking in the region, why did they react only at 4.30pm on Sunday after information of the ongoing crisis was communicated by the police?

Relatives of these 10 trekkers are currently in shock at the very sight of the charred bodies of their loved ones. But when the shock wears off and anger begins to take shape, it will be directed at everyone who was caught napping.