Recently identified post-fire carbon fluxes indicate that, to understand whether global fires represent a net carbon source or sink, one must consider both terrestrial carbon retention through pyrogenic carbon production and carbon losses via multiple pathways. Here these legacy source and sink pathways are quantified using a CMIP6 land surface model to estimate Earth’s fire carbon budget. Over the period 1901–2010, global pyrogenic carbon has driven an annual soil carbon accumulation of 337 TgC yr−1, offset by legacy carbon losses totalling −248 TgC yr−1. The residual of these values constrains the maximum annual pyrogenic carbon mineralization to 89 TgC yr−1 and the pyrogenic carbon mean residence time to 5,387 years, assuming a steady state. The residual is negative over forests and positive over grassland-savannahs (implying a potential sink), suggesting contrasting roles of vegetation in the fire carbon cycle. The paucity of observational constraints for representing pyrogenic carbon mineralization means that, without assuming a steady state, we are unable to determine the sign of the overall fire carbon balance. Constraining pyrogenic carbon mineralization rates, particularly over grassland-savannahs, is a critical research frontier that would enable a fuller understanding of fire’s role in the Earth system and inform attendant land use and conservation policy.