Where there's smoke, there's conspiracy at a Russia consulate

Black smoke billowing from a chimney on top of the Russian consulate in San Francisco, California, on Friday. A conspiracy theory suggests the Russians were burning documents ahead of a search of the building.
Black smoke billowing from a chimney on top of the Russian consulate in San Francisco, California, on Friday. A conspiracy theory suggests the Russians were burning documents ahead of a search of the building.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mystery arises after Trump orders San Francisco facility's closure

SAN FRANCISCO • Amid rare extreme heat in San Francisco, it was unusual to see black smoke billowing from a chimney- not to mention that it was coming from the Russian consulate, a day after the Trump administration ordered it closed.

Neighbours gathered on the sidewalks on Friday to gawk. The fire department came to investigate. Environmental officials sent an inspector. And this being California, there were concerns about pollution.

But a darker conspiracy theory was also in the air: that the Russians were burning documents ahead of what a Foreign Ministry spokes- man in Moscow has described as a search of the building scheduled over the weekend by US security services.

"Maybe they are shredding first and burning what they shred," said one woman standing on the sidewalk outside the consulate on Friday afternoon, identifying herself only by her first name, Marion.

"I don't care what they do as long as fire doesn't start coming out the windows," she said.

The consulate, a six-storey brick building in the wealthy enclave of Pacific Heights, has sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay. A picture of the consul, Mr Sergey Petrov, that was posted on the website of the consulate shows him sitting next to an elegant fireplace.

Arriving at the consulate on Friday, neither Mr Petrov nor a man accompanying him would comment when asked what was burning inside.

KEEP IT CONTAINED

Maybe they are shredding first and burning what they shred. I don't care what they do as long as fire doesn't start coming out the windows.

A WOMAN, IDENTIFYING HERSELF ONLY BY HER FIRST NAME, MARION, on the curious sight of smoke coming out of the Russian consulate.


AIRING HER CONCERNS

I have no idea what they are burning. But we are having poor air quality out here right now. We need to do everything we can to protect our air.

MS LISA FASANO, a spokesman for the Bay Area Air District, which enforces and regulates air quality in the nine-county region.

The smoke was first spotted around noon that day. Neighbours called the fire department.

"We responded as if it were a fire," said a fire department spokesman, Ms Mindy Talmadge.

With a layer of smoke haze covering the bay from wildfires in northern California, Friday had been declared a "Spare the Air Day", with residents urged to cut back on activities that cause pollution.

As images of the consulate smoke circulated on social media, the Bay Area Air District tweeted that it was taking action. "I have no idea what they are burning," said Ms Lisa Fasano, a spokesman for the Air District, which enforces and regulates air quality in the nine-county region.

"But we are having poor air quality out here right now. We need to do everything we can to protect our air."

Ms Fasano said the inspector patrolled the neighbourhood and took pictures. She said fines for "visible emissions" from burning start at US$5,000 (S$6,800).

The State Department this week demanded that Moscow shutter its consulate in San Francisco and offices in Washington and New York.

Meanwhile, Russia yesterday said it has summoned a US diplomat in Moscow to hand him a note of protest over plans to conduct searches in the Russian trade mission complex in Washington.

The Foreign Ministry called the planned "illegal inspection" of Russian diplomatic housing an "unprecedented aggressive action".

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 03, 2017, with the headline 'Where there's smoke, there's conspiracy at a Russia consulate'. Print Edition | Subscribe