To reconcile observations of decomposition rates, carbon inventories, and net primary production (NPP), we estimated long-term averages for C exchange in boreal forests near Thompson, Manitoba. Soil drainage as defined by water table, moss cover, and permafrost dynamics, is the dominant control on direct fire emissions. In upland forests, an average of about 10–30% of annual NPP was likely consumed by fire over the past 6500 years since these landforms and ecosystems were established. This long-term, average fire emission is much larger than has been accounted for in global C cycle models and may forecast an increase in fire activity for this region. While over decadal to century times these boreal forests may be acting as slight net sinks for C from the atmosphere to land, periods of drought and severe fire activity may result in net sources of C from these systems.