Chennai: A multi-department rescue operation assisted by the Defence Ministry was launched on Sunday evening to rescue at least 40 people including girls and some minors, who were trapped in a massive forest fire in Kurangini in Theni in south Tamil Nadu.
More than 15 girls were rescued – some with burn injuries – while the remaining girls were believed to be trapped in the raging fire as visibility remained poor at night. A few casualties were suspected but could not be confirmed at the time of filing this report. Realising the gravity of the situation, Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman herself spoke over phone to Theni Collector and to the Air Marshal of the Indian Air Force Southern Command (located in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala), to get a first-hand account of the situation and understand the requirements for assistance.
The Air Marshal was in Hyderabad on Sunday but had quickly despatched a couple of helicopters from the IAF airbase in Sulur in Coimbatorein western Tamil Nadu at around 7.30 pm. “The helicopters would undertake an aerial survey to ascertain the extent of area where the fire has spread and its intensity. No rescue operation can be undertaken at night. But immediately after the dawn break the helicopters would return to rescue the girls,” Nirmala Sitharaman told a television channel.
Forest officials said the girls had not taken permission to enter the forests. They had gone trekking without informing anyone and only after the fire spread the Forest Department received distress calls for help. “Around 10 to 15 girls who were in a position to walk downhill were being brought down by locals (tribals). The Theni Collector has informed me that ambulances with doctors are positioned downhill to render all medical aid for the girls. We will ascertain with the locals if there is a need for the IAS to undertake aerial spray to contain the fire,” the Defence Minister said. A few girls who sustained serious burn injuries were awaiting medical aid late on Sunday night. Teams from the Forest Department, Fire and Rescue Services Department and Police Department were involved in the search and rescue operations.