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High Park fire: Fort Collins mayor Karen Weitkunat on smoke, fears, hope

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Since the High Park fire began raging nearly two weeks ago a mere fifteen miles or so from the city she calls home, Fort Collins Mayor Karen Weitkunat has been getting calls of fear like she's never heard before.

"I've had citizens call and say, 'I've never been so scared in my life,'" she told Westword yesterday afternoon.

We caught up with Weitkunat yesterday at a Colorado Municipal League conference where mayors and leaders from all over the state, including Denver mayor Michael Hancock, gathered in Breckenridge.

"[The fire] has not encroached on city borders, which is really good," the mayor said. "Our biggest challenge is certainly air quality. It's horrendous -- the amount of ash and soot and smoke.... And next, we need to be concerned about water. That'll be the second major challenge and that will affect far more than Fort Collins."

The federal government has taken control of the containment efforts, but Weitkunat said help from neighboring municipalities has been important during this disaster.

"We are truly pleased and honored with the amount of interest, compassion and support coming from our neighboring municipalities," she said. "Everyone has stepped to the plate and offered services and help."

Still, she conceded that residents of Fort Collins are very worried about the continuing threat, with no foreseeable end in sight.

"You can sometimes see the tops of the flames. You can see the smoke," she said. "And the reality is, it seems like it's really, really close, and we've never been threatened that much. So yes, it's a scary situation.... We are at the mercy of mother nature -- rain, wind, weather. It's a dangerous situation."

She added, "My heart goes out to all those firefighters working in intense heat.... The danger is so great, and the terrain is so difficult. It's a horrible challenge that I'm sad to say will last probably far longer than we would ever hope that it would."

More from our News archive: "High Park fire update: 60K acres, 55 percent containment, $17.2 million spent to date"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin.

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