A massive forest fire broke out suddenly in Kurangini hills in Tamil Nadu on Sunday trapping 36 trekkers, most of them women.
According to an ANI report, 9 people have died in the fire. The people who died in the fire includes four women, four men and a child. Out of 27 people who have been rescued 10 of them have minor injuries, while 8 of them have serious injuries.
All the nine bodies have been retrieved.
Rescue operations were being taken up by the fire and forest department officials with the Indian Air Force sending two helicopters on the directives of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman after she was approached for help by Chief Minister K Palaniswami.
Sitharaman on Monday said an advanced light helicopter (ALH) will be pressed into service for rescuing those trapped in the forest fire in Tamil Nadu, due to the hostile terrain.
Citing the difficult terrain as a major hindrance in conducting operations seamlessly, Sitharaman said, "We are also bringing in an ALH, which is a light helicopter so that the manoeuvrability will be better because this cliff is almost a vertical hillock, which goes up very sharply and there is not much not of a level ground where they can land."
Therefore, the operation has to be done winching the survivor or the dead, she told reporters here.
The defence minister said 16 Garud commandos -- a special force of the Indian Air Force -- have rescued a few people in the night.
"At the moment, the report is that the garuds are trying to lift the bodies of the dead to a higher plain, from where you can have the helicopters go and carry them down. So there are two helicopters waiting to do this particular activity," Sitharaman said.
One helicopter has spent a lot of time from early dawn to contain the fire. It has also has doused the fire in that area, from where the garuds have moved the bodies, she added.
State Health Minister C Vijayabaskar, in a tweet, said 15 of those trapped in the Kurangani hills had been rescued and were being treated for injuries at the government hospital in Bodinayakanur in the district in southern Tamil Nadu.
Baldev said: "I have got calls from people that some are in unconscious state due to fire. So far there is no confirmation about casualties (death)," she said to a question from reporters on whether there was any death.
The rescue operation had been affected as night had fallen and wild animals had also started leaving the area where the fire was raging in a vast stretch, officials said.
While initial reports said those trapped were students, officials later said the victims, belonging to two groups, were young women and men and three children who were on a mountain climbing/trekking training.
The fire situation looked very serious but could be controlled, an official told PTI on condition of anonymity.
He also said the trekkers had not taken the permission or security for going to the deep forest area.
As the enormity of the situation unfolded, Palaniswami tonight said rescue operations were underway on a war footing and the state had sought two helicopters from the Defence Ministry.
His deputy O Panneerselvem, Forest Minister Dindigul C Srinivasan and top officials were overseeing the operations, on his request, he told reporters in Salem.
Stating that the cause of the fire was not known, he said efforts would be taken to strengthen the forest area security further.
Sitharaman remained in touch with the District Collector and directed the Indian Airforce to co-ordinate in the rescue operations.
In a series of tweets, she said two helicopters of the Indian Air Force from its Sulur base near Coimbatore were being sent to assist in the rescue operations.
"Responding to the request from the Hon @CMOTamilNadu on the forest -fire related issue -20 students are caught in Kurangani, Theni district. Instructed @IAF_MCC to help in rescue and evacuation. The Southern Command is in touch with the Collector of Theni," she said in a tweet.
In another tweet around 7 pm, Sitharaman said she spoke to the Theni District Collector who informed her that 10-15 students were making their way to the foothills.
A medical team had been sent to the spot and employees of a nearby private tea estate were also assisting in the rescue operations, she said quoting the collector.
Baldev, who met the rescued persons and spoke to them, later told reporters that a 12-member group from Tiruppur and Erode and another comprising 24 people from Chennai, on a trekking camp, reached Kurangani hills yesterday. They included 25 women and three children.
After staying overnight at an estate in Kozhukumalai, they started their return journey to the plains today when they heard about the sudden forest fire and got separated while attempting to find a safe way.
Kurangani-Kozhukumalai hills are located near Bodinayakanur, about 40 km from here,
Officials of Forest, Fire, Police, medical and rescue teams had gone to the spot and were being assisted by the local tribals and employees of nearby tea estates, Baldev said adding the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel were also engaged in the operations.
"It is dark, it is a hilly place and it is not a motorable road. After a particular distance we have to go by walk and there is a situation were we need to lift and carry the injured physically. It will definitely take time," she said when asked about the time-frame for rescuing all.
District Superintendent of Police V Baskaran and revenue and forest officials were also overseeing the operations.
Earlier, a report from Coimbatore, quoting police, said two IAF 'Sarang' helicopters from Sulur have left for Kurangani forest.