Wildfire is a key disturbance agent in forests worldwide, but recent large and costly fires have raised urgent questions about how different current fire regimes are from those of the past. Dendroecological reconstructions of historical fire frequency, severity, spatial variability, and extent, corroborated by other lines of evidence, are essential in addressing these questions. Existing methods can infer the severity of individual fires and stand-level fire regimes. However, novel research designs combining evidence of stand-level fire severity with fire extent are now being used to reconstruct spatial variability in historical fire regimes and to quantify the relative abundance of fire severity classes across landscapes, thereby facilitating comparison with modern fire regimes. Here we review how these new approaches build on traditional analyses of fire scars and forest age structures by presenting four case studies from the western United States and Canada. Collectively they demonstrate the importance of ecosystem-specific research that can guide management aiming to safeguard human, cultural and biological values in fire-prone forests and enhance forest resilience to the cumulative effects of global environmental change. Dendroecological reconstructions, combined with multiple lines of corroborating evidence, are key for achieving this goal.