Theni (TN): The toll in the forest fire in Theni district has risen to 11, with one more person succumbing to burns even as a forest officer has been suspended and a tour guide arrested.
Official sources said the search operations were concluded as all the trekkers were accounted for.
Meanwhile, the ‘Chennai Trekking Club’ (CTC) has blamed the local farmers for the fire that engulfed the area, killing 11 of the trekkers who had embarked on a “women’s trek to commemorate women’s day”.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, officials said the forest department had suspended Jaisingh, the officer on duty, when the incident occurred.
Ranjith (30), believed to be the tour guide who led the 36-member trekking group on the expedition, was arrested last night, the police said.
Toll rises to 11
With one person succumbing to burns at the Government Rajaji Hospital at Madurai Monday night, the toll in the forest fire in the Kurangani hills had gone up to 11, officials said.
The focus would now be on dousing the fire and preventing it from spreading to other areas, they added.
Preventive steps would also be taken to ensure that such incidents did not occur in the future.
Officials said there was a heavy shortage of forest guards in the area with only 50 per cent of the required strength of 107 personnel monitoring the 3,000 hectares of forest area.
The Chennai Trekking Club was not allowed to take novices on the expedition, they said. Besides, the permission was given only if the trekkers had proper guides from the area, they added.
The forest department was also not in a position to monitor each and everyone who climbed the hills from different points.
The reported claim of the club that the trekkers were allowed to stay overnight in the forest was not correct, officials said, adding that even the family members of forest officers were not allowed to do that.
A member of the trekking party, in a statement to the police, has reportedly said they paid Rs200 (Dh11) per person as entry fee before climbing the hills.
However, officials have denied this.
Meanwhile, the ‘Chennai Trekking Club’ today claimed the team had received an “entry pass” to proceed on their expedition.
A statement from the club to this effect virtually challenged the Tamil Nadu government’s contention that the trekkers had not obtained the required permission.
Chief Minister K Palaniswami has said the trekkers embarked on the expedition “without permission.”
The CTC blamed the local farmers for the fire. “As a normal seasonal cultivation practice, local farmers at the base burn grass during this season and on Sunday, it seems that they lit the grass at the base. Due to an unusual low depression in the Bodi valley, there were unexpected and unprecedented strong winds on Sunday.
“As a result, the fire swept across from the base of the hills and spread across the hill,” an update on the website of the club said.
The state government has ordered a probe into the incident and promised action against those who allegedly organised the expedition without permission.
The chief minister has announced a solatium of Rs400,000 each to the kin of the deceased, Rs100,000 each to those seriously injured and Rs50,000 each to those with simple injuries.
The 36-member team — 24 from Chennai and 12 from Tirupur and Erode districts — had embarked on the trekking expedition and reached the Kurangani hills in the Western Ghats on March 10.