Explicit knowledge of different error sources in long-term climate records from space is required to understand and mitigate their impacts on resulting time series. Imagery of the heritage Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) provides unique potential for climate research dating back to the 1980s, flying onboard a series of successive National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Meteorological Operational (MetOp) satellites. However, the NOAA satellites are affected by severe orbital drift that results in spurious trends in time series. We identified the impact and extent of the orbital drift in 1 km AVHRR long-term active fire data. This record contains data of European fire activity from 1985–2016 and was analyzed on a regional scale and extended across Europe. Inconsistent sampling of the diurnal active fire cycle due to orbital drift with a maximum delay of ∼5 h over NOAA-14 lifetime revealed a ∼90% decline in the number of observed fires. However, interregional results were less conclusive and other error sources as well as interannual variability were more pronounced. Solar illumination, measured by the sun zenith angle (SZA), related changes in background temperatures were significant for all regions and afternoon satellites with major changes in −0.03 to −0.09 K deg − 1 for ? B T 34 (p ≤ 0 . 001). Based on example scenes, we simulated the influence of changing temperatures related to changes in the SZA on the detection of active fires. These simulations showed a profound influence of the active fire detection capabilities dependent on biome and land cover characteristics. The strong decrease in the relative changes in the apparent number of active fires calculated over the satellites lifetime highlights that a correction of the orbital drift effect is essential even over short time periods.