Chennai, Mar 12: At least nine of the 36 trekkers who got trapped in Sunday evening’s forest fire in Tamil Nadu were feared to have died so far. The trekkers, mostly students, were caught in a massive forest fire in Theni district. Twenty seven people have been rescued and taken to hospital in Bodinaickanur. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been pressed into service for rescue operations.

While the Theni administration has ruled out any deaths, media reports suggested that nine trekkers were dead. The students were climbing down the hills from Munnar in Kerala to Theni when they got trapped in the fire. The expedition was organised by a Chennai-based trekking club which had not taken permission from the forest department. Theni District Collector Pallavi Baldev on Sunday said search was on for others.

According to Baldev, there is no motorable road to the spot where the fire raged. She said 24 trekkers from Chennai Trekking Club and 12 from Erode and Tiruppur had gone to the Kurangani Hills. She said the trekking group consisted of eight men, 25 women and three children. “While the trekkers were coming down, they came across a forest fire and the group broke up,” she said.

“Ten commandos will move to Madurai by a helicopter from Sulur Air Force base and trek to the spot in the night. They will carry medicines and provide medical assistance to the injured,” Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman tweeted on Sunday. The commandos will also check about the landing facility for the helicopter or decide on other ways of evacuating those stuck on the spot, including the injured, Sitharaman added.

Earlier, on her orders, an IAF helicopter surveyed the fire-ravaged hills. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, in a statement, said rescue operations are being carried out on a war footing. He also said the government would order a probe into the trekking expedition organised by the Chennai-based club without approval from the forest department.