The legacy of a firefighter killed battling the California wildfires will live on with an 11-year-old boy who was given the American flag covering his casket.
Mason Allen, a Spokane, Wash., fifth grader with autism, has never met firefighter Garrett Paiz, of Noel, Mo.
Mason’s mom, Danielle Thomas, told InsideEdition.com after dozens of local firefighters surprised Mason on his birthday in March, Paiz reached out to the family on Facebook and had been in contact with Thomas ever since.
"He talked so highly of Mason, and wanted to make sure Mason knew he was there for him," Thomas said.
Paiz and Mason, who does not communicate or socialize like most 11-year-old boys, spoke frequently, and the firefighter mentioned he had a challenge coin, which is normally awarded to service members in recognition of special achievements.
Paiz wanted the boy to have his coin, and decided he would bring it to him over the summer, when his team would be sent to Washington to put out wildfires.
But before Paiz had a chance to connect with the family, his team was moved to California in October.
One of the last messages Paiz sent to Thomas read: “I’m headed to the fire line k. Pray for us, this one is bad,”
Paiz was driving a water tanker in Napa when it went crashing down a ravine. He was 38.
“When I found out he passed, I was in complete shock,” Thomas said. “Literally almost still don’t believe it.”
As Paiz’s widow, Bobbie Paiz, began going through his belongings weeks later, she stumbled across the challenge coin and remembered his promise to Mason.
When Mason opened the box they received in the mail, he discovered Bobbie had also sent the flag that was draped over Paiz's casket.
“Mason told me he was trying so hard not to cry,” his mom said. “Seeing him hug that flag — what an honor.”
She explained firefighters have always had a special place in Mason’s heart.
The family now plans to put a collection of his items in a shadow box to be showcased in Mason’s firefighter-themed room.