Matt Gibb in the thick of it in his Helicharter helicopter on the left. Photos: Evan Barnes.

Chopper pilot fights fires, gets evacuated

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Matt Gibb was at work on Thursday afternoon when the call came through.

The Eves Valley helicopter pilot already knew what it was about. He could see the smoke.

Matt was the first helicopter on the scene of the Pigeon Valley fire. But the effort has since turned into the largest aerial fire fight in New Zealand’s history, featuring 23 helicopters.

“They quickly realised it was beyond just us and put the call out for more help,” Matt says.

But what was quickly apparent is that Matt’s own business, Helicharter Nelson, was at also risk and soon had to be evacuated.

“I couldn’t take helicopter back to Eves Valley, I didn’t trust it would be there in the morning.”

Instead he took it to Nelson Airport.

“My wife and her friends were there at the hangar in Eves Valley clearing out things that were special.”

Usually, Matt does general utility work and transporting people into the backcountry across the top of the south and the West Coast.

This was a different kind of job. As an “air attack specialist” Matt’s task was to take orders from two other helicopters that were assessing the scene.

He would focus in on one area and go back and forth between and water source and the fire, trying to dampen down the area so ground crews could go in.

“You are taking the punch out of the fire and cooling it down. You have got the wind and the heat in the fire.

“You just pick on sides and areas and where they think needs attention.”

Because of his focus – working up to 12-hour days – he only heard about the fire spreading over the radio.

“You are just going from water to fire, water to fire, over and over.”

He said that, in terms of danger, you only attack what you can.

“If you can only pick at the edges of it, you just do that. If it’s dangerous then you can’t attack it. You work on what you can.”

When he heard about two other fires breaking out in Rabbit Island and Nelson, he thought “here we go”.

“The last thing we needed was to lose resources.”

However, it was ironic as all air resources were available to fight both of them. “The operations were so much quicker.”

Matt has since been able to land at his hangar in Eves Valley but the fight isn’t over yet.

He has been swapping out with his other pilots so he can rest but is keen to get back to the task and make sure the fire is out for good.

“Then we will know the job is done.”

Terry Murdoch, who owns Christchurch Helicopters, joined many others from around the country as demand came in for people to help.

“I have to say the hospitality has just been amazing.”

He says that the team at Saxton Motor Lodge “moved heaven and earth” to get them accommodation.

“And all the volunteers providing food, it has really been something.”

He is back in Christchurch now but thankful for the team of pilots he worked with.