Shortly after noon, in tinderbox conditions of summer, a forest fire broke out on the lower slopes of Mt. Arunachala, which swept the south-west flanks right up to the peak. Local NGOs finally doused the flames more than six hours later.
Summer fires upon Mt Arunachala were a taken-for-granted annual occurrence and regarded as a local tradition.
It was believed that the all-consuming flames encouraged the re-growth of the lemon grasses that grew all over the sacred hill, a valuable cash crop whose harvesting rights were auctioned off to the highest bidder and sold as an increasingly expensive roofing material for traditional grass-roofed houses. Also, as Mt Arunachala is regarded as Lord Shiva himself in the form of tejolinga (literally, pillar of fire) it was believed to be spiritually meritorious to set off fires on the holy hill.
These beliefs and practices were devastating to the ecology of the hill as well as the three-decade-long efforts to re-forest Arunachala.
Thanks to the sustained efforts of The Forest Way, the Annamalai Reforestation Society, the district Forest Department and various other local NGOs, these disastrous annual fires had become a thing of the past.
Yet, despite their best efforts, including preventative fire-lines and a strict ban on smoking upon the hill, extensive forest fires like the one today still occasionally happen.
The good news is that the private volunteer efforts to prevent and fight the fires continue unabated.