Climate models suggest that extreme rainfall events will become more common with increased atmospheric warming. Consequently, changes in the size and frequency of rainfall will influence biophysical drivers that regulate the strength and timing of soil CO2 efflux – a major source of terrestrial carbon flux. We used a rainfall manipulation experiment during the summer monsoon season (July–September) to vary both the size and frequency of precipitation in an arid grassland 2 years before and 2 years after a lightning-caused wildfire. Soil CO2 efflux rates were always higher under increased rainfall event size than under increased rainfall event frequency, or ambient precipitation. Although fire reduced soil CO2 efflux rates by nearly 70%, the overall responses to rainfall variability were consistent before and after the fire. The overall sensitivity of soil CO2 efflux to temperature (Q10) converged to 1.4, but this value differed somewhat among treatments especially before the fire. Changes in rainfall patterns resulted in differences in the periodicity of soil CO2 efflux with strong signals at 1, 8, and 30 days. Increased rainfall event size enhanced the synchrony between photosynthetically active radiation and soil CO2 efflux over the growing season before and after fire, suggesting a change in the temporal availability of substrate pools that regulate the temporal dynamics and magnitude of soil CO2 efflux. We conclude that arid grasslands are capable of rapidly increasing and maintaining high soil CO2 efflux rates in response to increased rainfall event size more than increased rainfall event frequency both before and after a fire. Therefore, the amount and pattern of multiple rain pulses over the growing season are crucial for understanding CO2 dynamics in burned and unburned water-limited ecosystems.