As firefighters continue to battle wildfires in Christchurch today, a community is mourning the loss of one of its own who just yesterday was among those fighting 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. He had been linked to the same company for years.

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

Duncan said he had spoken to the man earlier that 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 — sent that chopper to the scene after 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.”

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

The accident happened in an area above the Sugarloaf car park. The helicopter was one of several air crews helping to fight wildfires in Christchurch’s Port Hills.

Police were due to notify next of kin last night so the pilot had not been named.

Police and the Civil Aviation Authority have begun an investigation.

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

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

He saw a stretcher being carried, but there was no body on it.

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

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel said: “There really is no greater sacrifice than to risk your life in the service of others.

“I know I speak for the whole council when I express sincere gratitude to everyone who is doing their best to get these fires under control.”

Members of the public paid tribute to the pilot on social media sites.

One man wrote: “Rest in peace to this hero who literally put his life on the line to help our city and our people put this fire out. So sad.”

Another said: “RIP to the amazing man helping to fight the Christchurch fires [whose] helicopter sadly went down. Thoughts are with your family at this time.”

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

It was estimated the fires together covered 580ha.

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

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

The other blaze — at Early Valley — was also last night effectively contained, authorities said. However, it was expected firefighters would be needed for another two or three days to douse the flames.

The Selwyn District Council, the Selwyn District Emergency Management and Civil Defence are all involved in the operation. —additional reporting Ben Hill

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