Adventure sports come with a risk as you ought to be prepared to take on the unknown. But try telling that to the families of the young trekkers scorched by a fire at the Kurangani Reserve Forest in the Western Ghats in Theni district of Tamil Nadu, 500 km from Chennai, and they wouldn’t have bargained for it. At last count, 11 of the 36 trekkers died in the surprise Sunday forest fire and seven others were battling for life in hospitals with severe burn injuries.
Trekking expeditions require prior approval from the forest and wildlife authorities, but the organisers apparently did not bother to do the paperwork. Had they sought permission, they could have been alerted to the spurt of forest fires in the vicinity—as many as 30 of them in a week, which was exclusively reported by TNIE. The fires were tracked by the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) in Hyderabad using satellites.
Sunday’s disastrous blaze was first noticed by NRSC at 2 pm and conveyed to the forest authorities immediately. NRSC has a system of sending text alerts to cut the disaster response time but strangely TN is yet to share its territorial forest officials’ mobile numbers with it, according to ISRO director K Sivan, which is appalling. Whether or not Sunday’s alert would have been useful when technically forest officials were not even aware of the trekkers’ presence in the heart of Kurangani is debatable, but creating a mobile alert network is the most sensible thing to do.
On the positive side, there was good Centre-state synergy as Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman responded to CM Edappadi K Palaniswami’s SOS immediately by deploying IAF helicopters and Garud commandos immediately. That Bodi happened to be Deputy CM O Panneerselvam’s constituency helped, as the state put its full might behind the rescue operations. A robust regulatory mechanism for adventure sport is the crying need of the hour. And TN must iron out its issues with NRSC and immediately get its SMS tracker of forest fires rolling.