Fire is returning to many conifer-dominated forests where species composition and structure have been altered by fire exclusion. Ecological effects of these fires are influenced strongly by the degree of forest change during the fire-free period. Response of fire-adapted species assemblages to extended fire-free intervals is highly variable, even in communities with similar historical fire regimes. This variability in plant community response to fire exclusion is not well understood; however, ecological mechanisms such as individual species’ adaptations to disturbance or competition and underlying site characteristics that facilitate or impede establishment and growth have been proposed as potential drivers of assemblage response. We used spatially explicit dendrochronological reconstruction of tree population dynamics and fire regimes to examine the influence of historical disturbance frequency (a proxy for adaptation to disturbance or competition), and potential site productivity (a proxy for underlying site characteristics) on the stability of forest composition and structure along a continuous ecological gradient of pine, dry mixed-conifer, mesic mixed-conifer, and spruce-fir forests following fire exclusion. While average structural density increased in all forests, species composition was relatively stable in the lowest productivity pine-dominated and highest productivity spruce- fir-dominated sites immediately following fire exclusion and for the next 100 years, suggesting site productivity as a primary control on species composition and structure in forests with very different historical fire regimes. Species composition was least stable on intermediate productivity sites dominated by mixed-conifer forests, shifting from primarily fire-adapted species to competition-adapted, fire-sensitive species within 20 years of fire exclusion. Rapid changes to species composition and stand densities have been interpreted by some as evidence of high-severity fire. We demonstrate that the very different ecological process of fire exclusion can produce similar changes by shifting selective pressures from disturbance-mediated to productivity-mediated controls. Restoring disturbance-adapted species composition and structure to intermediate productivity forests may help to buffer them against projected increasing temperatures, lengthening fire seasons, and more frequent and prolonged moisture stress. Fewer management options are available to promote adaptation in forest assemblages historically constrained by underlying site productivity.