Burning of the vegetation in the African savannahs in the dry season is widespread and may have significant effects on soil chemical and biological properties. A field experiment in a full factorial randomised block design with fire, ash and extra grass biomass as main factors was carried out in savannah woodland of the Gambella region in Ethiopia. The microbial biomass C (Cmic) was 52% (fumigation–extraction) and 20% (substrate-induced respiration) higher in burned than unburned plots 12 d after burning. Both basal respiration and potential denitrification enzyme activity (PDA) immediately responded to burning and increased after treatment. However, in burned plots addition of extra biomass (fuel load) led to a reduction of Cmic and PDA due to enhanced fire temperature. Five days after burning, there was a short-lived burst in the in situ soil respiration following rainfall, with twice as high soil respiration in burned than unburned plots. In contrast, 12 d after burning soil respiration was 21% lower in the burned plots, coinciding with lower soil water content in the same plots. The fire treatment resulted in higher concentrations of dissolved organic C (24–85%) and nitrate (47–76%) in the soil until 90 d after burning, while soil NH4+–N was not affected to the same extent. The increase in soil NO3−–N but not NH4+–N in the burned plots together with the well-aerated soil conditions indicated that nitrifying bacteria were stimulated by fire and immediately oxidised NH4+–N to NO3−–N. In the subsequent rainy season, NO3−–N and, consequently, PDA were reduced by ash deposition. Further, Cmic was lower in burned plots at that time. However, the fire-induced changes in microbial biomass and activity were relatively small compared to the substantial seasonal variation, suggesting transient effects of the low severity experimental fire on soil microbial functioning.