Theni forest fire: A survivor shares her horrific ordeal

As panic spread, there were only two options left — to use the last bit of dying strength to take an alternative route to safety or to stay behind until a path opened up.

Published: 13th March 2018 05:16 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th March 2018 09:42 AM   |  A+A-

Sahana, one of the members of the Chennai Trekking Club who escaped the Theni forest fire unhurt, explaining the ordeal. (Express Photo | Martin Louis)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Once the initial panic subsided, 20-year-old Sahana had two options — to wait out the burgeoning forest fire in the green patches above along with most of her trekking club mates or to use the last bit of her dying strength to take an alternative route to safety with the local guide.

This lean-framed girl from Chromepet decided to take charge of her fate instead of placing it in the hands of the winds fanning the inferno below. It is this instinctive decision that brought her home unscathed on Monday.

Only on her second trek, Sahana recollected how nobody was sure what to do when the fire in a course of minutes changed from an ‘innocuous’ to very ‘real threat’. “We noticed it near Othadimaram around 2.30 pm, after we had lunch on Sunday. The situation escalated to ‘each man for himself’ very soon,” she said.

“It wasn’t an easy decision. Taking the alternative route meant walking towards the flames before taking the diversion towards Kurangani,” she said, explaining how in certain parts of the route flames ravaged shrubbery just an arm’s length away. “At one point, our local guide Ranjith had to grab the two children in the group and throw them toward the other side to prevent them from being seared.”

Sweat and sore muscles were not strange things to Sahana, a badminton champion during her school days. She described the four-hour-long escape to Kurangani as the “most exhausting experience in her life.”

The group had to scamper through rugged terrain, squeeze into crevices when the smoke and heat became unmanageable and then make a run for it when flames died down temporarily.

But it was not only the energy drain and cramping muscles that were weighing down the 10-member-strong group that forest official Ranjith was leading to safety.

“Thoughts about those who chose to stay behind and whether I had taken the right decision myself kept creeping in,” Sahana said.

When the group finally encountered the villagers at Kurangani before nightfall, Sahana said they were too tired to even celebrate the escape.The two other Chennai Trekking Club members, who decided to take an alternative route to Kurangani along with Sahana, have also survived the ordeal and are recovering.

Even as debate raged over whether the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC) knew in advance about the forest fire, Sahana told Express that she had seen a forest fire on her previous trek with the CTC. “We saw a forest fire during a trek to Nagari in February,” she said, adding that she considered it a usual thing.

As another debate unfolds over whether the Chennai Trekking Club had received permission for this particular trek, a former member close to its founder Peter Van Geit told Express that the CTC did not get permission for most treks in the past.


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