On Monday evening, the family of 27-year-old Nisha requested that she be taken off ventilator support at a government hospital in Madurai, making her the 10th victim of a forest fire in Theni district of southern Tamil Nadu. The fire started in the Kurangani forest reserve on Sunday, trapping 39 trekkers from Chennai, Coimbatore and Tiruppur, an NDTV report said.

The Indian Air Force concluded its rescue mission after a six-hour operation on Monday. The Defence Ministry tweeted that 27 trekkers had been rescued. But going by some reports, a few trapped trekkers may still be missing.

Theni District Collector Pallavi Baldev told The News Minute that the trekking group had camped at an estate in the forest area on Saturday and were on their way back on Sunday when they were caught in the fire. “They panicked and the group got scattered,” she said. There was one team of 27 people from Chennai, and another team of 12 from Erode.

Conservator of Forests (Madurai Circle) RK Jegania told The Times of India the expedition was illegal. The Theni Collector had also said that the trekkers had not crossed the forest checkposts. However, evidence later emerged that the Erode team had crossed a checkpost on the way to Kurangani forests. In a note to the authorities, one of the member D Prabhu said that the team paid Rs 200 per head to the forest department.

“The Chennai team did not get permission from forest department, but the Erode team did,” said Sivakumar, special branch inspector for Theni district. The inspector was however not sure if the Chennai team had passed through a checkpost or had taken a different route. “We have not got all the details yet, since we were all busy with rescue work,” he said. “We have just formed a team and are investigating into this.”

However, forest experts and experienced trekkers said the blame lay both with the organisers and the forest department, which should have stopped the group when it entered the forest area.

Responsible trekking

In Tamil Nadu, the forest department manages ecotourism and operates treks and walking trails in a few places such as the Pichavaram mangrove forest or Annamalai Tiger reserve, said Saravanan of the Wild Wing Trust. A non-governmental organisation focussed on wildlife and the environment, the trust also conducts treks in the state.

Saravanan said the forest department’s permission must be taken before entering any reserve. The department usually, as per protocol, sends a forest watcher or guide with a group to handle any difficult situation that may arise – a measure that could have saved lives in Sunday’s fire.

“Even if I am an experienced trekker who may have climbed the Himalayas or trekked in Brazil, I cannot predict any localised situation in the places where I am hiking,” Saravanan said. “Any place should be understood very well while walking into it.”

Shivam, an expedition leader at the Bengaluru-based trekking organisation India Hikes, also stressed the need for trekking groups to receive permission to set up camp. He said that forest officials visit campsites to check for open bonfires, which are not permitted.

The forest department has several check points where trekkers are charged a nominal amount for each day spent in the forest, factoring in the cost of a guide and a maintenance fee among others. It is to avoid paying these costs that some trekkers do not inform the forest department of their expedition.

“Since there are a lot of openings to a forest area, it is hard for officials to control who is venturing into the region,” said Shivam. “It matters how responsible you are as a trekker. When the department sets these kinds of rules, if any emergency occurs, they can contact you or your parents.”

Saravanan, too, said that many groups venture into forest areas without permission. “Nobody has stopped them so far,” he said. He added that a growing number of resorts located near forests advertise nature treks and walks, activities that require the forest department’s permission. Trespassing on reserve forest area is an offence under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, he pointed out.

Saravanan said that for the past five years or so, the forests of Theni have been getting around 100 trekkers every weekend, and their activities need to be better regulated. “It is the forest department’s job to see that nobody enters this region, but they hardly seem to be operating,” he said.

Time for fires

The end of winter is a time to be particularly careful. Forest fires, natural or man-made, are common around this time, said Sadiq Ali, founder of the Wildlife and Nature Conservation Trust in Ooty. The forests are very dry and trees falling or rubbing against each other can spark a fire. At times, communities living in the vicinity of the forests set fire to the dried grass to ensure fresh greenery after the monsoon, he said.

“In the forest department, we start working on fire control from March,” Ali, who is also the honorary warden of the Nilgiris reserve forest, said. “Wherever there is a fire, we involve the locals to help us extinguish it.”

According to Saravanan, the area that caught fire on Sunday is open deciduous forest, with more grass than trees. “If there had been more trees, the fire would have been much bigger,” he said.

Saravanan added that the forest department decides whether it is safe to venture into the region, and that “if they feel it is too dry, they will stop operating the trail”.