Vaimoana Tapaleao is the New Zealand Herald's Pacific Affairs and People reporter.

Close-knit community mourns local pilot as fires rage on

As authorities continue to fight fires in Christchurch today, a community mourns the loss of one of its own who just yesterday was among those battling the flames.

Emergency services were called to an area near the Port Hills just after 2pm after reports a helicopter had crashed.

Those first on the scene knew the victim personally, having been connected to the same company for a number of years.

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Garden City Helicopters general manager, Simon Duncan, said he, like many within the sector and wider community, knew the man well.

Duncan said he spoke to his mate earlier in the morning.

"We're a very small-knit community and so we have a lot of sympathy for the family and for the company [he worked for].

"He actually learned to fly with us, so we very much feel for the pilot's family.

"We're absolutely, totally distraught about this situation.''

Garden City Helicopters - which owns the local Westpac Rescue Helicopter - dispatched that chopper to the scene, following the accident.

That meant those on board knew the victim personally.

"Our own staff had to deal with that situation as well - so it's been a hard day. We've known him for a long time and [we know] his background.''

The accident happened in an area above the Sugarloaf car park. The helicopter was one of a number of air crews helping to fight wild fires in Christchurch's Port Hills.

The pilot's name is yet to be released publicly, as police were due to notify next of kin last night.

The company he worked for is not yet known, but it is understood he was a well-respected pilot who had learned to fly locally.

A spokesman for Way To Go Heliservices said the pilot was not officially one of their employees, but offered their company's condolences to his family also.

Police and the Civil Aviation Authority have since launched an investigation into the accident.

All helicopters involved were immediately grounded after the accident as a sign of respect.

A man who saw the wreckage told the Herald the helicopter "looks pretty damaged'' and upside down.

Principal rural fire officer Douglas Marshall, called the incident a tragedy and paid tribute to a man who was just doing his job.

helicopters fight the blaze on the Port Hills Christchurch. Photo / Christchurch Star / Martin Hunter
helicopters fight the blaze on the Port Hills Christchurch. Photo / Christchurch Star / Martin Hunter

"Those involved in fighting fire on the ground and in the air make a huge contribution to keeping our community safe - often at considerable risk - and our thoughts are with the family, the helicopter company and the other pilots working on this operation.''

The death came as up to 15 helicopters, a plane, rural tankers and a Defence Force tanker - as well as up to 100 firefighters - battled two large wildfires on the edge of the city.

The fires started on Monday evening in the Port Hills and firefighters had been focusing on preserving the historically significant Kennedy's Bush nature reserve and adventure park.

One home had been destroyed and another slightly damaged, but residents from two dozen homes were evacuated to Tai Tupu School on Monday night.

Fire fighters fight the blaze on the Port Hills Christchurch around Osterholts Road, Tai Tapu. pHOTO / Christchurch Star / Martin Hunter
Fire fighters fight the blaze on the Port Hills Christchurch around Osterholts Road, Tai Tapu. pHOTO / Christchurch Star / Martin Hunter

It was estimated the area of both fires, combined, took up about 580 hectares.

Helicopters were due to operate until nightfall yesterday and are due back up at first light today.

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By last night, the fire at Marley Hill was contained, but ground crews would be monitoring activity along the Summit Road.

The other blaze - at Early Valley - was also last night effectively contained, authorities said. However, there were some spots of fire burning downhill from the ridgeline above Governors Bay and Allandale.

Three ground crews were due to patrol the Early Valley fire and another crew patrolled the Summit Road area overnight.

The Selwyn District Council, the Selwyn District Emergency Management and Civil Defence are all involved in the operation.

- additional reporting Ben Hill

- NZ Herald

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