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Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007 | Some people bring cookies to families camped out at Qualcomm Stadium. Others volunteer their time or home or skills. But Google and NASA have gone one step further to help San Diegans: They’ve teamed up to rewrite the way the county handles its wildfires in the future, and they’ve sent the Google Guys to do it.

At about 3 p.m. on Wednesday, two well-dressed, well-groomed young men strolled into San Diego County’s high-tech Emergency Operations Center in Kearny Mesa. The men were immediately ushered into their own private room, just off the main reception area to the EOC, where they swung open laptop computers and started to look very important.

The two Google whiz kids, Josh Mendelsohn and Tyler Peterson, were in San Diego to showcase what could become the future of fighting wildfires: They planned to wow officials with images of the San Diego wildfires that are almost real-time, and to work with county officials to assess some of the applications of Google’s technology to the county’s fight against the fires.

They’re doing it with the help of NASA, which, in partnership with Northrop Gumman Corp. started flying space-age unmanned drones earlier this week over San Diego to collect incredibly high-resolution photographs of the wildfires. Essentially, Google’s job is to take the massive amounts of data provided by NASA and to put them into a form that is accessible to everyone, namely: Google Earth.

Eric Frost, co-director of San Diego State University’s Visualization Center, said the possibilities for using the technology are immense. He foresees NASA teaming up with Google to one day provide real-time images of wildfires not just to response coordinators, but to individuals in their homes too. Before too long, he said, residents facing an oncoming firestorm may well be able to log on to Google Earth and see how close the fire has come, and if their escape route is clear.

“It’s a bunch of cleverness, coming together in a volunteer fashion,” Frost said.

Mendelsohn and Peterson are part of a loosely-knit group of enthusiasts at Google called the “Disaster Response Team,” which responds to emergencies like natural disasters and brainstorms ways to use Google’s technology to help the recovery effort. Like many such groups at Google, the team meets on a completely ad-hoc basis, with different people contributing different skills as and when they’re needed.

Google employees are famously supposed to spend at least 20 percent of their time purely on innovation, working on concepts like Google News and Google Finance that start off vague but occasionally solidify into marketable products.

The Google Guys said there are at least 40 more Googlers backing them up at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View in the Bay Area. This is the first time the company has sent a physical presence to the site of a disaster, they said, but they’ve worked on a number of natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina and the devastating tsunami in 2004.

“We feel a real purpose to take these technologies and these ideas and implement them as fast as we can,” said Mendelsohn. “It’s just really hard to tell a Googler ‘No.’”

Officials at the county’s EOC said they haven’t yet really had a chance to take a look at what Google’s offering.

County spokesman Mike Workman said he has been flooded with offers for help from all sorts of companies. When Google came calling, he said he would have been silly to say no.

The county’s already eclipsed the last wildfire response in technological terms, Workman said, but they’re always looking for new ways to improve their response, and the technology Google’s offering could do just that.

If it works.

Tegan Glasheen, the county’s web content manager, said he’s keen to see what the Google guys come up with and what possibilities they might bring to help keep county responders and residents better informed the next time wildfires rage through San Diego.

“We want to see if it’s a tool we can use, maybe even for other things we might not even be thinking about right now,” Glasheen said.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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