BARNES CITY — The Barnes City Fire Department is welcoming a new fire chief — and she’s already making history.

Tapanga Blom is serving as the first female fire chief in Mahaska County with the Barnes City Fire Department.

The department mourned the loss of its former fire chief, Briar Awtry, after he passed away in February of this year. Awtry’s death left the department with big shoes to fill. Though he will certainly be missed, the Barnes City Fire Department is looking toward the future under Blom's direction. 

Blom and her husband joined the Barnes City Fire Department at the beginning of 2022, after the couple bought a property within the department’s jurisdiction. Blom says Awtry himself was a major factor in the couple’s decision to join.

“Briar kept trying to get us on,” Blom says. “When we agreed to, he actually had us voted onto the department before we even turned in our application.”

Blom hit the ground running and says she immediately connected with the work of a firefighter.

“Once I got on, I kind of discovered that I had a love for it. I had over 100 training hours, just in last year. I was the top for our department in training hours,” Blom says.

The secret to Blom’s success is her passion for serving her community.

“For me, it’s serving the community. Being there for those when they’re in need,” Blom says. “I myself, when I was a kid, had a situation and our house caught fire, so I know what it’s like to be in that situation where you need that fire department; you need them to come and help you before everything you own is a total loss. Once I got into it, it was just something I had a drive for and a passion for, and it just went from there.”

As Mahaska County’s first female fire chief, Blom says she’s passionate about showing girls that they can be successful in male-dominated fields.

“I actually took [Mahaska County Emergency Management Administrator] Jamey [Robinson’s] Fire One class, and when we first started, he went around and asked everybody why they wanted to be a firefighter," Blom says. "I said serving my community, but I also said that I wanted to be able to show girls that they could do it too.

“I work in a field that’s more male-dominated than female, so being able to be a firefighter — definitely more male dominated than female — being able to show girls that they can do it … I want people to see that,” she says. 

Becoming fire chief comes with new duties for Blom, including being responsible for the safety of the department.

“The people that you’re fighting fire with, side by side, now I’m in charge of them and their safety is something I need to look out for, as well as my own," she says.

Blom also says the position comes with a lot more paperwork than she’s used to, but people who have worked with her before believe that she has what it takes to meet the challenge head-on.

“I’ve been very impressed with Tapanga since she started,” Robinson said. “She takes this very seriously. As a matter of fact, in our Firefighter One class that I’m teaching, she’s one of the few people that takes the time to do the workbook and actually study the materials … I have no doubt in my mind that in the role of chief she’s going to do a great job and continue to keep Barnes City going in a positive direction.”

Blom is already doing just that by building its Emergency Medical Responder, or EMR, program. She has already taken and passed her EMR class and says the department currently has people pursuing Emergency Medical Technician, or EMT, certification.

“We’re definitely going to get that medical program going back in Barnes City, so that’ll be a huge help as well,” Blom said.

Blom wants the community to know that the department is working hard to keep them safe, and that she is working hard to honor Awtry’s legacy as fire chief.

“I’ve said since I became chief that I want to make Briar proud up there,” Blom says. “I definitely want to continue making the department better like Briar was, and I just want to make sure that we get that good reputation out there with the community. I want them to know that we’re training, we’re working hard on doing everything we can to know that we know for sure what to do with any kind of call.”

Channing Rucks can be reached at

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