Smoke seen pouring from Russian consulate in San Francisco

Acrid, black smoke has been seen pouring from a chimney at the Russian consulate in San Francisco a day after the Trump administration ordered its closure amid escalating tensions between the United States and Russia.

U.S. told Moscow to close consulate in San Francisco, buildings in Washington and New York

Black smoke billows from a chimney on top of the Russian consulate on Friday in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Acrid, black smoke has been seen pouring from a chimney at the Russian consulate in San Francisco 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 not allowed to enter the building Friday.

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 spokesperson 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.

San Francisco firefighters talk with workers at the Russian consulate on Friday in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Talmadge said she did not know what they were burning on a day when normally cool San Francisco temperatures had already climbed to 35 C by noon.

"It was not unintentional. They were burning something in their fireplace," she said.

The consulate's workers are hurrying to shut one of Russia's oldest consulates in the U.S.

The order for Russia to vacate the consulate and an official diplomatic residence in San Francisco escalated an already tense diplomatic standoff between Washington and Moscow.

The deadline for the consulate to close is Saturday.

Fire trucks surround the Consulate-General of Russia on Friday in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

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 U.S. 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.

A Manhattan building housing a Russian trade mission office is shown Aug. 31. The U.S. State Department ordered Russia to close it. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

Neighbours 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 U.S. 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, Calif., area about 145 kilometres northeast of San Francisco.

Shops that cater to the city's large community of Russian emigrés 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.

'We will respond harshly'

Russia said on Friday it would respond harshly to any U.S. measures designed to hurt it.

The warning, from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, came as Russia said it was weighing a response to the U.S. move that will force it to shut down two trade missions in the United States as well as the San Francisco consulate by Sept. 2.

"We'll react as soon as we finish our analysis," Lavrov told students in Moscow. "We will respond harshly to things that damage us."

Separately, a top Kremlin aide complained the U.S. move pushed bilateral ties further into a blind alley and fuelled a spiral of tit-for-tat retaliatory measures.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Russia 'will respond harshly to things that damage us.' (Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January, saying he wanted to improve U.S.-Russia ties which were at a post-Cold War low. But since then, ties have frayed further after U.S. intelligence officials said Russia had meddled in the presidential election, something Moscow denies.

Trump, himself battling allegations his associates colluded with Russia, grudgingly signed new sanctions on Moscow into law this month which had been drawn up by Congress.

When it became clear those measures would become law, Moscow ordered the United States to cut its diplomatic and technical staff in Russia by more than half, to 455 people.

The U.S. Embassy is seen in Moscow on July 28. Lavrov hinted on Friday that Russia might look at ordering further reductions in U.S. embassy staff. (Alexander Zemlianichenko /Associated Press)

Lavrov hinted on Friday that Russia might look at ordering further reductions in U.S. embassy staff, suggesting Moscow had been generous last time by allowing Washington to keep "more than 150" extra people.

He said Russia had cut the U.S. numbers to tally with the number of Russian diplomats in the United States, but that Moscow had generously included more than 150 Russian staff who work at Russia's representation office at the United Nations in its count.

'Tit-for-tat sanctions was not started by us'

Lavrov said Moscow still hoped for better relations and blamed Trump's political foes for the deteriorating situation.

"I want to say that this whole story with exchanging tit-for-tat sanctions was not started by us," Lavrov said.

"It was started by the Obama administration to undermine U.S.-Russia relations and to not allow Trump to advance constructive ideas or fulfil his pre-election pledges."

Barack Obama, then outgoing president, expelled 35 suspected Russian spies in December and seized two Russian diplomatic compounds. President Vladimir Putin paused before responding, saying he would wait to see how Trump handled Russia.

"We thought this administration could exercise common sense, but unfortunately the Russophobes in Congress are not allowing it to," said Lavrov, who complained that the United States had only given Moscow 48 hours to comply with its latest demands.

With files from Reuters