Trekking Common in Theni, But Beware of Forest Fire in Dry Season

All you need to know about trekking permission in Tamil Nadu, forest fires and preventive measures.

Published
India
6 min read
A fire broke out in the Kurangini hills, when a group of 39 had gone to trek. This is an image taken by a trekker a week before the tragedy.
i

The corridors of Tamil Nadu’s Theni Government Hospital are crowded with relatives of patients who were injured in the forest fire in Kurangini hills. They hope to hear the doctors say four words – ‘your relative will survive.’

As many as 39 trekkers were surrounded by the forest fire in the Kurangini hills that broke out on Sunday, 11 March. While 10 have succumbed to burn injuries, a few are still critical.

There were two groups of trekkers that went into the forest, the Forest Department said – a team of 12 from Erode via Tour De India Holidays and a team of 27 led by the Chennai Trekkers Club (CTC). It was found that the group from Erode had sought permission before the trek.

Forest officials and a few trekkers, who trekked to the hills a week ago, said there was an imminent danger of a forest fire.

The question now is, why was the trekking permission granted to begin with?

Do You Need a Permit to Trek in the Forest?

Yes.

In Tamil Nadu, the Forest Department manages and operates treks and nature trails in a few places such as the Pichavaram mangrove forest, Mudhumalai Tiger Reserve and Annamalai Tiger Reserve.

But if a group wishes to trek anywhere in the state, they need to submit a letter to the concerned District Forest Officer with complete details of the route and number of persons involved. The officer will assess and approve accordingly.

The Forest Officer sends a forest watcher or guide with the group to help handle any difficult situation that may arise – a measure that could have saved lives in Sunday’s fire.
Trekkers say the forest official issue a pass that costs Rs 200 per person to enter the Kurangini hills.
Trekkers say the forest official issue a pass that costs Rs 200 per person to enter the Kurangini hills.
(Photo Courtesy: Manoj TR)

The Forest Department has several check points where trekkers are charged a nominal amount for each day spent in the forest, cost of a guide, and a maintenance fee. But there are some trekkers who do not inform the Forest Department to avoid paying up.

Driving through or even walking within the limits of a reserve forest area is an offence under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.

Often, trekkers take locals who are familiar with the terrain and trail routes as guides. Manoj, 26, had gone trekking in Kurangini hills a week ago, and his group took the help of a local, Ranjith, who also works as a forest watcher.

Ranjith was also the guide with one of the groups that was caught in the tragedy. His understanding of the forest and direction of winds helped save several lives.

Is the Forest Department Equipped to Locate and Handle a Forest Fire?

The Kurangani hills to Kolukkumalai route is a popular among trekkers.
The Kurangani hills to Kolukkumalai route is a popular among trekkers.
(Photo Courtesy: Manoj TR)

A senior forest official explained how there was a system in place to locate a forest fire, assess its spread and ways to mitigate damage.

All officials in the forest area are connected via a wireless communicator.

The Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) have been set up which store, manage, display and analyse all types of geographic and spatial data. The GIS helps in reducing fire risk, assess the prescribed burn planning, prevent fire and its spread and post fire assessment and disaster management.

The Fire Survey of India sends updates to the central control room every six hours. It then employs the Simple Network Paging Protocol (SNPP), a method to send commands and messages instantly. The concerned officer and Fire Department is alerted and the action plan flagged.

Areas that are most prone to fire are identified and fire lines laid. A fire line is a gap in the vegetation that acts as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a wildfire.

Officials said building fire lines is subject to funds as some regions do not get adequate resources.

A forest officials remarked, “If people go without our permission, how do we save them? We don’t even know they are there in the first place!”

Timing is Key

It is the prerogative of the forest officials to close down a trail if the forest is too dry and prone to fire.
It is the prerogative of the forest officials to close down a trail if the forest is too dry and prone to fire.
(Photo Courtesy: Manoj TR)

January through March is dry season in Tamil Nadu, which can lead to forest fires. Dry trees falling or rubbing against each other can spark a fire. Moderate to heavy winds can make matters worse, helping the fire spread faster.

Experts say forest fires are even essential. They rejuvenate the soil and eliminate invasive species, which promote healthier and stronger plant species.

It is the prerogative of the forest officials to close down a certain area or certain trekking trail if they see the forest is too dry.

Isn’t Trekking in the Kurangini Hills a Weekend Affair?

When a forest official was asked if this is the first time anyone was trekking up the Kurangini hills, he hesitatingly answered, "Yes, first time."

Trekkers rubbish that claim, saying the department is merely trying to save its skin and that they have proof of passes that were issued by officials.

It has become a weekend ritual for locals.
It has become a weekend ritual for locals.
(Photo Courtesy: Manoj TR)

Several young trekkers said the Kurangini hills have become a favourite among IT employees and fitness enthusiasts in and around Tamil Nadu, with at least 20-40 people visiting the hills every weekend.

Manoj recalled his meeting with the forest guard at the time of seeking permission.

“The forest guard said only this, ‘stay with your guide, go safe, everything is in your hands,’” said Manoj.

No Regulation by Forest Officials Adds Fuel to Fire

As you hike up the hills, you reach Kolukkumalai Tea Estate which is about 8,000 feet above sea level – the highest tea estate in the world.
As you hike up the hills, you reach Kolukkumalai Tea Estate which is about 8,000 feet above sea level – the highest tea estate in the world.
(Photo Courtesy: Manoj TR)

In Tamil Nadu, all treks, forest trails and safari tours are managed only by the Forest Department. There is no specific ecotourism department like Karnataka and Kerala, says Saravanan of the Wild Wing Trust.

So, if there are frequent trekkers in Tamil Nadu, can’t the system be regulated? Activists and officials concur that that is vital.

Saravanan says that the Forest Department should open up more trekking routes after factoring in safety concerns.

If you keep closing down and restricting all check-posts, I am sure everyone will anyway go on the ‘illegal’ routes. If it is regulated, such incidents can be mitigated. The government will earn a lot of revenue and community-based ecotourism can happen.
Saravanan of the Wild Wing Trust

A senior forest official says one of the biggest reasons why the system is not yet regularised is because they are short-staffed.

Around 40 percent of the lower cadre posts are vacant, such as a forest watcher or guard. The role of a watcher is crucial as he is in charge of monitoring several hectares of land for any natural phenomenon or human interference.

This incident is enough to make avid trekker understand the risks involved in a ‘thrill’ activity and how one needs to be aware before going on such an expedition.

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!