A yearly global fire history is a prerequisite for quantifying the contribution of previous fires to the past and present global carbon budget. Vegetation fires can have both direct (combustion) and long-term indirect effects on the carbon cycle. Every fire influences the ecosystem carbon budget for many years, as a consequence of internal reorganization, decomposition of dead biomass, and regrowth. We used a two-step process to estimate these effects. First we synthesized the available data available for the 1980s or 1990s to produce a global fire map. For regions with no data, we developed estimates based on vegetation type and history. Second, we then worked backwards to reconstruct the fire history. This reconstruction was based on published data when available. Where it was not, we extrapolated from land use practices, qualitative reports and local studies, such as tree ring analysis. The resulting product is intended as a first approximation for questions about consequences of historical changes in fire for the global carbon budget. We estimate that an average of 608 Mha yr−1 burned (not including agricultural fires) at the end of the 20th century. 86% of this occurred in tropical savannas. Fires in forests with higher carbon stocks consumed 70.7 Mha yr−1 at the beginning of the century, mostly in the boreal and temperate forests of the Northern Hemisphere. This decreased to 15.2 Mha yr−1 in the 1960s as a consequence of fire suppression policies and the development of efficient fire fighting equipment. Since then, fires in temperate and boreal forests have decreased to 11.2 Mha yr−1. At the same time, burned areas increased exponentially in tropical forests, reaching 54 Mha yr−1 in the 1990s, reflecting the use of fire in deforestation for expansion of agriculture. There is some evidence for an increase in area burned in temperate and boreal forests in the closing years of the 20th century.