A massive forest fire broke out suddenly in a hill in Tamil Nadu on Sunday trapping 36 trekkers, most of them women, with 15 being rescued till late in the night.

Rescue operations are being taken up by the fire and forest department officials with the Indian Airforce sending two helicopters on the directives of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman after she was approached for help by Chief Minister K Palaniswami.

The helicopters undertook a survey of the area and returned to neighbouring Madurai. They were expected to join the rescue operation later, Theni District Collector Mariam Pallavi Baldev said.

Baldev also confirmed that 15 people have been injured while saying that there is no information on the number of casualties.

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.

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.

As the enormity of the situation unfolded, Palaniswami 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, Palaniswami 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 on Saturday. They included 25 women and three children.

After staying overnight at an estate in Kozhukumalai, they started their return journey to the plains on Sunday when they heard about the sudden forest fire and got separated while attempting to find a safe way.

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.

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.

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