Washington: Acrid, black smoke was seen pouring from a chimney at the Russian consulate in San Francisco on Friday, a day after the Trump administration ordered its closure amid escalating tensions between the United States and Russia.
Firefighters who arrived at the scene were turned away by consulate officials who came from inside the building.
MEDIA! The Russian embassy had a fire alarm NOT A FIRE everything is okay and we are clearing Thank you pic.twitter.com/q3O9Knfa65
— San Francisco Fire (@sffdpio) September 1, 2017
An Associated Press reporter heard people who came from inside the building tell firefighters that there was no problem and that consulate staff were burning unidentified items in a fireplace.
Mindy Talamadge, a spokeswoman from the San Francisco Fire Department, said the department received a call about the smoke and sent a crew to investigate but determined the smoke was coming from the chimney.
“They had a fire going in their fireplace,” she said.
Talmadge said she did not know what they were burning on a day when normally cool San Francisco temperatures had already climbed to 95 degrees by noon.
“It was not unintentional. They were burning something in their fireplace,” she said.
The consulate’s workers are hurrying to shut Russia’s oldest consulate in the U.S. ahead of a Saturday deadline.
The order for Russia to vacate the consulate and an official diplomatic residence in San Francisco — home to a longstanding community of Russian emigres and technology workers — escalated an already tense diplomatic standoff between Washington and Moscow.
Friday morning, a handful of people with business at the embassy were allowed into the building. A day earlier, Russian citizens said they were able to pick up and renew their passports if they had pre-existing appointments. Consular officials did not comment as they got into cars with diplomatic plates.
Those without appointments were already being turned away.
Yuri Alexandrovski, a U.S.-Russian dual citizen who works in the tech industry, said he had hoped to renew his passport to go to the World Cup next year in Russia, but was not allowed because he did not have an appointment.
“It seemed like I was asking questions they didn’t have answers for,” said Alexandrovski. “I’m assuming I will have to fly to Seattle to get that done.”
The State Department also ordered Russia to close trade missions housed in satellite offices in Washington and New York. By next week, Russia will have just three consulates in the U.S. — in Washington, D.C., Seattle and Houston — the same number that the U.S. has in Russia, department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
The closures on both U.S. coasts marked perhaps the most drastic diplomatic measure by the United States against Russia since 1986, when the nuclear-armed powers expelled dozens of each other’s diplomats.
American counterintelligence officials have long kept a watchful eye on Russia’s outpost in San Francisco, concerned that people posted to the consulate as diplomats were engaged in espionage.
Neighbors said they often wondered what type of equipment was housed in sheds on the roof of the consulate, which has a clear line of sight to maritime movement throughout the bay.
Last December, the U.S. kicked out several Russians diplomats in San Francisco in response to allegations that Russia interfered in the presidential election. This time, the State Department did not expel any of the consulate’s staff from the United States. In addition to Consul Sergey Petrov, the consulate’s website showed 13 other Russian officials working at the San Francisco post.
Russia has a long history in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there are three Russian cathedrals marking the different facets of the Orthodox church.
The Bay Area has more than 75,000 Russian-speaking residents, with as many as 300,000 Russian speakers in the greater Sacramento, California, area about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco.
Shops that cater to the city’s large community of Russian emigres line the streets near the consulate. It sits a few blocks from the Presidio, which used to be a U.S. military fort and the headquarters of the Sixth U.S. Army before it was inactivated.