Photos: A tour of the ’yellow zone’ in Lac-Mégantic

One resident returns to his charred neighbourhood
Lac-Mégantic, Québec: July 11th, 2013 -- A bicycle and playground are seen among the burned wreckage of homes, near the centre of Lac-Mégantic, Québec, July 11th, 2013. The small town of Lac-Mégantic was devastated last week by a massive derailment and explosion of a 72-car freight train carrying oil tankers. (Ian Willms for Macleans)
Photograph by Ian Willms

Claude Paradis has an unobstructed view of downtown Lac-Mégantic from his backyard on Grégoire Street. A week ago, he didn’t.

There were houses and trees in sight last Friday. Now, it’s all gone.

It’s Thursday and Paradis has been home for less than two hours. On his front door, there were instructions on using the tap water, finding potential remnants of oily substances around the house and disposing of items left in the refrigerator. He has taken the sheet down, but the paper remains on doors throughout the neighbourhood.

A home with a health advisory taped to the front door, near the centre of Lac-Mégantic on July 11, 2013. (Photograph by Ian Willms)

Paradis walks around his house, checking on the extent of the damage. Half of his backyard is accessible to him. The other half is blocked by a metal fence, which marks the “red zone” where only for police, firefighters, investigators and certain politicians can enter. Through the metal fence, he looks at the destruction metres in front of him. Authorities are in the process of putting up panels on the fence to block the view to outsiders, but they haven’t gotten around this far yet. Paradis wants to take the whole tour around.

He squishes himself between the metal fence and his shed, and finds himself in a neighbour’s yard. It’s eerily quiet. There are only a handful of people working inside the “red zone” as sundown approaches. The extent of the damage is horrific and what remains upright appears random.

Resident Claude Paradis squeezes past the "red zone" fence to get to his home, in the centre of Lac-Mégantic on July 11, 2013. (Photograph by Ian Willms)

One house near the water is completely burned to nothing but scraps. Wheelbarrows are blackened and collapsed in the middle. And yet, in the same family’s back yard, a plastic slide for young children remains.

A children's playground is seen among the burned wreckage, near the centre of Lac-Mégantic on July 11, 2013. (Photograph by Ian Willms)

In the distance, a placard remains perfectly intact to explain the history of an old Victorian home. The home, however, is nowhere to be found. Just south of the placard, a once-proud red oak stands. It now appears dead. Paradis says the tree has been there since 1900.

“Everything burned like a napkin,” Paradis says, adding there was no wind the night of the explosion, so the fire didn’t sweep across in any particular direction.

Walking now along the waterfront of Lac-Mégantic, large rocks have been broken into multiple shards. Some pieces are as small as the sand. “You see the petroleum in the sand,” Paradis says. “It’s tar sand now.” Booms float in the water to contain the petroleum product that has spilled from the train cars.

It’s the first time Paradis has seen the extent of the damage this close. He hasn’t watched anything on TV because he left for a campsite when he was forced to evacuate. He never cries or chokes up, though the tour has a sombre atmosphere. He points to two neighbouring houses, reduced to rubble. The people in the home on the left survived, he says, but the family on the right died. He continues to walk on quietly on his own.

The remains of a park bench and destroyed buildings, near the centre of Lac-Mégantic on July 11, 2013. (Photograph by Ian Willms)

A police officer patrols along the beach next to Veterans Park. Instead of interrupting Paradis’ tour for a journalist and photojournalist, to kick the three out of the “yellow zone” where journalists are not supposed to have access, the officer tags along to hear the story of the once-picturesque tourist town.

She pulls out her iPhone to take a picture of a tree stump burned into four spikes. It could be mistaken for a piece in an art gallery. The police officers in town are friendly and calm. Many have vacationed here during the summer.

A burned tree just outside the "red zone" barrier, in the centre of Lac-Mégantic on July 11, 2013. (Photograph by Ian Willms)

The fence turns to the left, but Paradis doesn’t want to go any further. The tour ends. He takes a breath and slowly walks back—past his neighbours’ land, along the oil-stained sand, by the children’s play set, through his half-sized backyard and into his empty home.

Resident Claude Paradis stands in front of his home, in the centre of Lac-Mégantic on July 11th, 2013. (Photograph by Ian Willms)