Coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), a western North American conifer of ancient lineage, has a paradoxical combination of late-successional characteristics and strong adaptations to disturbance. Despite its shade tolerance and heavy dominance of the canopy on many sites, redwood saplings are uncommon in upland old-growth stands. Information needed to ensure the conservation of old-growth redwood forests has been limited. In this review paper, we integrate evidence on redwood biology with data on the historic and modern disturbance regimes to help clarify the degree to which key attributes of redwood forests may have been dependent upon periodic disturbance. Available evidence suggests that episodes of fire, flooding, and slope failure prior to European settlement were frequent but predominantly of low to moderate severity and extent, resulting in broadly uneven-aged forests. The majority of fires prior to European settlement were apparently of human origin. Frequency and severity of the major disturbance agents have been radically changed in modern times. Fires have been largely excluded, and flooding has been altered in ways that have often been detrimental to old-growth redwoods on alluvial terraces. However, because of the apparent anthropogenic origin of most presettlement fires, the long-term evolutionary role of fire for coast redwood is ecologically ambiguous. With fire exclusion, redwood possibly could be displaced to some extent on upland sites by increasing abundance of fire-sensitive competitors. Alternatively, redwood may be able to maintain dominance by vegetative sprouting and new seedling establishment on root-wad mounds, fallen logs, and on soil exposed by slope failure. Future research priorities are suggested that will help resolve some of the current ambiguities.