BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Jan. 5, 2012) -- The smell of ash hung in the charred remnants of the United Arab Emirates' army compound within Bagram Airfield, three months after a fire destroyed it.

Insurgents fired a rocket into the compound, igniting a workshop on Aug. 19. Wind quickly spread the fire from structure to structure, burning barracks, offices and vehicle hangers. Emirates soldiers saved some of their armored vehicles and other equipment, but several vehicles and most of their camp burned to the ground.

Emergency personnel prevented the inferno from spreading to an adjacent U.S. compound and other areas within the coalition base, which houses as many as 31,000 people, but the 30-man Emirates compound was a total loss. Three months after the fire, solid puddles formed from the melted bullet-proof windows of armored vehicles still glimmered on the ground.

An irony is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was nearing completion of a network of 284 fire hydrants that firefighters will be able to use in just such an emergency. The hydrants became operational on Nov. 14. The bright yellow hydrants are roughly 360 feet apart, spread across the entire coalition air base.

The hydrants are part of an extensive water infrastructure upgrade that was scheduled to be complete in its entirety in late December 2011. The $41.7 million project also includes installation of three deep wells and a distribution structure and a sewage collection and treatment system.

Construction is being handled by the construction firm Zafer Taahhüt Insaat ve Ticaret A.S., which is based in Istanbul. Construction began in August of 2008.

The water infrastructure project required excavation along Disney Drive, which was named after fallen Spc. Jason A. Disney of Fallon, Nev., and an adjoining sidewalk. Disney is the base's main thoroughfare and is crowded with bumper-to-bumper traffic nearly 24 hours a day.

The military airport has served as a strategic center of operations for Afghan, Soviet, Taliban and coalition military forces at different times since it was created in 1976, yet it has lacked an adequate water infrastructure system the entire time.

"In terms of protecting all the employees and all the military folks that are here, it's real important to have that fire system in place," said Lt. Col. Douglas Vanderhoof, the officer in charge of the Corps of Engineers' Bagram Area Office.

Until the hydrants were installed, firefighters relied extensively on pumper trucks, which as the Emirates compound fire illustrated, are inadequate for the base that's used as one of primary distribution centers for coalition forces in Afghanistan. Between 26,000 and 31,000 military and civilian personnel are housed at the base daily, depending on troop movements.

The hydrants follow the base's seven-mile perimeter road and dot the most densely populated areas.

Installation along the base's narrow roads proved to be challenging, Vanderhoof said. The base's roads are used by bulky military vehicles called mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs. Visibility from within the 7-ton to 25-ton rigs is limited.

"The hydrants are close by the road and MRAP drivers don't always see them. They'll run over them and they've got to be replaced. So that's an issue," Vanderhoof said.

The hydrants are designed to snap off, without damaging the underlying water systems, so damage from MRAP hits was limited. Still, after four hits, the Corps of Engineers ordered a modification to the contract that called for concrete-filled bollards to be installed next to each hydrant. The bollards increase visibility and provide protection against future vehicle strikes.

Another important component of the project was the installation of three deep wells around the base. Two are located along Disney on the west side of the base -- No. 1 on the south end, and No. 2 on the north end. Well No. 3 is on the east side of the base. All three are nearly 400 feet deep, which are far deeper than wells used by Bagram village residents for agricultural purposes.

"We went to the lower aquifer," said Corps of Engineers construction representative David Hoopengarner. "It makes it so that the local area is not being affected by us taking their water from their aquifer."

Another benefit is that water taken from deeper depths is not as likely to carry contaminants created by decades of warfare and unchecked discharge of industrial and household waste into the environment, he said.

The water is filtered for natural impurities at the well stations, Hoopengarner said.

"It's got a lot of turbidity in it -- particles and silt. It's not real dark or anything, but it's not drinkable or fit for human consumption right out of the ground," he said.

The water is pushed through 30 separate filters to remove sand and other particles.

"Basically, it's just the same stuff you see on top of the ground that's down in the ground. It's just getting picked up from the pumps," said Hoopengarner, who is on a temporary assignment to Afghanistan.

Each pumping station features three 211,000-gallon water storage tanks.

After confirming that the wells are functional, Corps of Engineers officials will put them on stand-by status, to allow time for each of the coalition forces on the base to tap into the new main waterlines. As demand increases, wells Nos. 1 and 3 will be brought back into full service, Hoopengarner said.

Initially, the new source of water is being used for non-potable needs, such as hydrants, showers and toilets. Following additional testing, the water is expected to be certified as drinkable water.

"Nobody has deemed it potable water able to drink, but we're working on that. There's really nothing wrong with it," he said.

Currently, the base water comes from commercial sources, requiring a fleet of water tanker trucks. A key advantage to the well network will be reducing the number of trucks transporting water along Disney, Vanderhoof said.

The waste water treatment plant became operational on Oct. 12. It has the capacity to treat as much as 1.5 million gallons of waste water a day, or the equivalent of the waste water created by half of the base's population. That, in turn, reduced the number of sewage tanker trucks needed to haul off waste water.