By Marco della Cava and William M. Welch
SONORA, CA - Even before evacuation warnings reached her rural mountain community ahead of the massive and growing wildfire just to the east, Stacy Geer packed up her two kids and headed to the safety of an evacuation center.
"Last night was hard. The kids couldn't really sleep with the lights and the noise, but it's much better than being home and stressing out about the smoke," said Geer, who left her home in the Twainharte community with the children, ages 3 and 1, for the shelter that the Red Cross set up at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds here. Her husband remained behind to watch their home.
RELATED: Rim Fire has 'extreme' growth potential
"I'll see how long we stay. It may have to do with when I get called back to work,'' said Geer, who works at a nearby casino.
The massive Rim Fire was still growing, as state and federal fire officials estimated its size at more than 288 square miles, or 184,481 acres, by Tuesday evening, covering an area along the edge and west of Yosemite National Park. Crews have contained 20 percent of the blaze.
An army of firefighters, more than 4,000, battled the blaze, which has so far destroyed 31 homes and 80 outbuildings, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Firefighters were aided by large liquid-dropping aircraft, including C-130 and DC-10 airplanes and at least 17 helicopters.
Firefighters worked overnight Monday to expand containment lines, both with heavy equipment and hand tools, in an effort to slow the fire's growth. Temperatures Tuesday were in the upper 80s, relative humidity was low and 15 mph winds whipped the flames.
Fire officials issued more evacuation orders and said 4,500 homes, another 1,000 outbuildings and half a dozen commercial buildings were threatened.
The area scorched inside Yosemite National Park doubled to about 64 square miles of backcountry. Most of the park, including its main tourist areas, remain open. The U.S. Forestry service said crews lit backfires along the edges of the park overnight to eliminate fuel and stop the fire's progress.
As Labor Day weekend nears, the Park Service is eager to get the word out that it's business as usual in the country's first national park, which sprawls over 750,000 acres and soars from bear-stalked meadows to 13,000-foot granite peaks with celebrated names like El Capitan and Half Dome.
Apart from slightly thinned out crowds - noticeable everywhere from half-filled trolleys that tour the valley floor to some empty benches during ranger presentations - the park so far shows little trace of the inferno nearby. Park officials cleared brush and set sprinklers on two groves of giant sequoias that were less than 10 miles away from the fire's front lines, said park spokesman Scott Gediman.
Forest Service biologists are studying the effect on wildlife. Much of the area that has burned is part of the state's winter-range deer habitat. Biologist Crispin Holland said most of the large deer herds would still be well above the fire danger.
Biologists discovered stranded Western pond turtles on national forest land near the edge of Yosemite. Their marshy meadow had burned, and the surviving creatures were huddled in the middle of the expanse in what little water remained.
"We're hoping to deliver some water to those turtles," Holland said. "We might also drag some brush in to give them cover."
Here in Sonora, population 4,903, the smoke was suffocating Tuesday. Although typically it has been lifting by midday, winds and weather conspired to keep the acrid haze on the ground. Masks covered faces. Car windows are rolled up. Visibility is negligible in an area renowned for its scenic grandeur.
Residents are focusing less on their woes and more on their neighbors.
"I don't give the fire a second thought," Tom Penhallegon, a local Lions leader whose crew assumed cooking duties at the evacuation center, said of the flames. "My mind is on taking care of my people."
Penhallegon said it took him mere minutes to get a $10,000 check for food from senior Lions Club officials in Chicago.
"We've got people volunteering from as far away as San Diego," he said. His wife Wendy Dart helps coordinate volunteers that include a retired Army cook and a woman who made meals at a local prison,
Red Cross spokesman Mike Duncan said he has had to turn back volunteers given that the shelter, which can sleep 500 people, is 10% full. Animals also are welcome; so far a tabby cat and a dog have been dropped off by their owners for safe keeping.
"I've never seen this level of in-kind donations or help. It makes me proud," Duncan said, pointing a mountains of bottled water, puzzles, magazines and toiletries. "It's all spontaneous and heartfelt."
Duncan, from nearby Oakdale, has worked as a volunteer in 14 disasters around the country, including hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
"It's surreal that after all those deployments all over the country, now it's in my area,'' he said. "But that just makes me work harder.''
Contributing: Marisol Bello and Gary Strauss, USA TODAY; Associated Press