It took a tragedy that killed 23 people for the Tamil Nadu Forest Department to wake up to the reality of forest fire mismanagement and unregulated trekking.
When the fire broke out on March 11, 2018 at Kurangani, official sources from the department confirmed that they did not have an exact count of the people trapped at Othamaram.
Post the incident, questions were raised about how two groups of trekkers were allowed into the area, despite it being an unauthorised trekking route.
In fact, most officials knew of the trekkers only when a 108 distress call came through from one of the victims. A senior official from the Theni district administration says that a message through the fire alert system came only a day after the incident.
The unpreparedness in rescue operations was evident from the confusion and lack of clarity apparent during the initial hours. “A senior police official did not know whether he could give water to the burn victims atop the hill,” says a doctor involved in the rescue.
Rules rolled out
Days after the incident, Atulya Misra, the then Principal Secretary, Revenue and Disaster Management, was assigned the task of investigating its cause. His report, which is yet to be made public, triggered a series of regulations and initiatives including the notification of the ‘Tamil Nadu Forest and Wildlife Areas (Regulation of Trekking) Rules’ on October 12, 2018.
The rules stated that trekking would be banned between February 15 and April 15 every year due to the heightened possibility of forest fires. Trekking is now allowed only on 114 recognised trekking routes in Tamil Nadu after approval from District Forest Officers.
A senior official from the Forest Department says that they have begun deploying forest fire watchers and establishing wireless telecommunication systems along trekking routes. They have also honed the fire awareness systems to intimate officials at the earliest, he adds.
District Collector, Theni, M. Pallavi Baldev, says that the alerts now come immediately. “Though we cannot prevent naturally occurring forest fires, we can respond quicker,” she says.
The department has begun using satellite maps and is planning to use drone-based technology to monitor treks and drop fire balls (small pellets of water), adds the official from the Forest Department. He claims that they have begun clearing 30 metres of grass near the borders of the reserved forests to prevent man-made fires. Though the department has not recruited any new forest fire watchers, anti-poaching watchers, members of Eco Development Committees and non-governmental organisations are being used to put out fires. “We engaged around 200 men from the EDC of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve to curtail a fire there recently,” he says.
The enforcement of regulations, however, appears to have resulted in a sharp drop in trekking activities across the State, avid trekkers say. Rakesh Rajan, founder, Wandermile, a company that organises adventure trips, says that people are now apprehensive about trekking post the incident. A senior official from Theni Forest Department says that only 69 people have trekked since the reopening of the Kurangani-Top Station route on November 30, 2018. The villagers there say that the tedious task of getting approvals from the Forest Department has also deterred trekkers.