Tamil Nadu forest fire: 9 dead, few still trapped, rescue ops on

TAMIL NADU: At least nine people, including a child, have been killed in a massive forest fire that broke out on a hill in Tamil Nadu's Theni district. More than 10 trekkers continue to be trapped in the area.

Theni District Collector Mariam Pallavi Baldev said those deceased include four men, four men and a child. 

Rescue operations are being taken up by the fire and forest department officials with the Indian Air Force sending two helicopters on the directives of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman after she was approached for help by Chief Minister K Palaniswami. 

State Health Minister C Vijayabaskar, in a tweet, said 15 people rescued from the Kurangani hills on Sunday were being treated for injuries at the government hospital in Bodinayakanur in the district in southern Tamil Nadu.

Baldev said: "I have got calls from people that some are in unconscious state due to fire. So far there is no confirmation about casualties (death)," she said to a question from reporters on whether there was any death.

The rescue operation had been affected as night had fallen and wild animals had also started leaving the area where the fire was raging in a vast stretch, officials said.

The fire situation looked very serious but could be controlled, an official told PTI on condition of anonymity. He also said the trekkers had not taken the permission or security for going to the deep forest area.

As the enormity of the situation unfolded, Palaniswami on Sunday night said rescue operations were underway on a war footing and the state had sought two helicopters from the Defence Ministry.

His deputy O Panneerselvem, Forest Minister Dindigul C Srinivasan and top officials were overseeing the operations, on his request, he told reporters in Salem.

Stating that the cause of the fire was not known, he said efforts would be taken to strengthen the forest area security further.

Sitharaman remained in touch with the District Collector and directed the Indian Air Force to co-ordinate in the rescue operations.

In a series of tweets, she said two helicopters of the Indian Air Force from its Sulur base near Coimbatore were being sent to assist in the rescue operations.

"Responding to the request from the Hon @CMOTamilNadu on the forest -fire related issue -20 students are caught in Kurangani, Theni district. Instructed @IAF_MCC to help in rescue and evacuation. The Southern Command is in touch with the Collector of Theni," she said in a tweet.

In another tweet around 7 pm, Sitharaman said she spoke to the Theni District Collector who informed her that 10-15 students were making their way to the foothills.

A medical team had been sent to the spot and employees of a nearby private tea estate were also assisting in the rescue operations, she said quoting the collector.

Baldev, who met the rescued persons and spoke to them, later told reporters that a 12-member group from Tiruppur and Erode and another comprising 24 people from Chennai, on a trekking camp, reached Kurangani hills on Saturday. They included 25 women and three children.

After staying overnight at an estate in Kozhukumalai, they started their return journey to the plains on Sunday when they heard about the sudden forest fire and got separated while attempting to find a safe way.

Kurangani-Kozhukumalai hills are located near Bodinayakanur, Officials of Forest, Fire, Police, medical and rescue teams had gone to the spot and were being assisted by the local tribals and employees of nearby tea estates, Baldev said adding the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel were also engaged in the operations.

"It is dark, it is a hilly place and it is not a motorable road. After a particular distance we have to go by walk and there is a situation were we need to lift and carry the injured physically. It will definitely take time," she said when asked about the time-frame for rescuing all.

District Superintendent of Police V Baskaran and revenue and forest officials were also overseeing the operations.

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