Prescribed fire can potentially reduce carbon emissions from unplanned fires. This potential will differ among ecosystems owing to inherent differences in the efficacy of prescribed burning in reducing unplanned fire activity (or 'leverage', i.e. the reduction in area of unplanned fire per unit area of prescribed fire). In temperate eucalypt forests, prescribed burning leverage is relatively low and potential for mitigation of carbon emissions from unplanned fires via prescribed fire is potentially limited. Simulations of fire regimes accounting for non-linear patterns of fuel dynamics for three fuel types characteristic of eucalypt forests in south-eastern Australia supported this prediction. Estimated mean annual fuel consumption increased with diminishing leverage and increasing rate of prescribed burning, even though average fire intensity (prescribed and unplanned fires combined) decreased. The results indicated that use of prescribed burning in these temperate forests is unlikely to yield a net reduction in carbon emissions. Future increases in burning rates under climate change may increase emissions and reduce carbon sequestration. A more detailed understanding of the efficacy of prescribed burning and dynamics of combustible biomass pools is required to clarify the potential for mitigation of carbon emissions in temperate eucalypt forests and other ecosystems.