Comprehensive assessment of ecological change after fires have burned forests and rangelands is important if we are to understand, predict and measure fire effects. We highlight the challenges in effective assessment of fire and burn severity in the field and using both remote sensing and simulation models. We draw on diverse recent research for guidance on assessing fire effects on vegetation and soil using field methods, remote sensing and models. We suggest that instead of collapsing many diverse, complex and interacting fire effects into a single severity index, the effects of fire should be directly measured and then integrated into severity index keys specifically designed for objective severity assessment. Using soil burn severity measures as examples, we highlight best practices for selecting imagery, designing an index, determining timing and deciding what to measure, emphasising continuous variables measureable in the field and from remote sensing. We also urge the development of a severity field assessment database and research to further our understanding of causal mechanisms linking fire and burn severity to conditions before and during fires to support improved models linking fire behaviour and severity and for forecasting effects of future fires.