Kern County's epic poverty killed a small child early Wednesday morning.

A family squatting in a storage area behind a vacant market in east Bakersfield was driven into the night when a fire broke out shortly after midnight. Firefighters found the child when they entered the structure to search for more people.

Three other members of the child's family were injured in the blaze in the 1200 block of Sterling Road, firefighters said.

Dispatched at 12:41 a.m., firefighters arrived to find smoke and flames coming from the storage area, which is also near a house. They were told children were trapped inside.

Deputies helped get family members out of the building, but firefighters found the child's body a short time later. Fire investigators and coroner's officials were then summoned. 

The cause of the fire is under investigation. The child appeared to be about 4 years old, according to early reports, but that could not be confirmed. Positive identification, including age, will have to come from the coroner.

The U.S. Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which collects information on deaths and injuries due to fire, reports that nearly 2,200 people in the U.S. were killed in fires in 2017. The previous year's total was 2,290.

Poverty, homelessness and squatting have been identified as major risk factors. "For families who seek shelter in vehicles or abandoned buildings after becoming homeless, their risk of fire rises precipitously ... particularly in cold weather," FEMA reported in a 1997 study.

And 22 percent of Kern County's population lives below the poverty line, a substantially higher percentage than the national average of 14.7 percent, according to Data USA. The U.S. Census Bureau puts the Kern County figure at 19.7 percent.

Children younger than 14 are the single most at-risk group for fire deaths, followed by people over 65, according to FEMA.

But it's unusual for an entire family of homeless people to squat in an abandoned structure.

Carlos Baldovinos, executive director of The Mission at Kern County, said he's heard of a mother or father squatting with one or two children, but for an entire family to occupy a vacant building is "very rare."

"In the 10 years I've been doing this work, I've heard about this type of situation maybe twice," he said. 

But he's never, he said, heard about a family squatting in a storage area. 

Baldovinos said there's a lack of affordable housing in the county. That, along with job scarcity, contributes to people just settling for living in whatever conditions they can find. 

Capitol Weekly reported in June that California lawmakers had proposed dozens of housing-related bills within a six-month span to address a housing crisis throughout the state. 

According to Capitol Weekly, "The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development — an agency that works to expand access to affordable housing — says California has built an average of 80,000 homes a year for the past decade, which is less than half of the 180,000 new homes needed to keep up with the predicted population growth through 2025."

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