A substantial portion of chaparral shrublands in the southern part of California's Sierra Nevada Mountain Range has never had a recorded fire since record keeping began in 1910. We hypothesised that such long periods without fire are outside the historical range of variability and that when such areas burn, postfire recovery is weaker than in younger stands. We predicted that long fire-free periods will result in loss of shrub species and deterioration of soil seed banks, which, coupled with higher fire intensities from the greater accumulation of dead biomass, will lead to poorer postfire regeneration. The 2002 McNally Fire burned ancient stands that were as much as 150 years old, as well as much younger (mature) stands. Based on shrub skeletons in the burned area as a surrogate for prefire density, we found that ancient stands change in structure, owing primarily to the loss of obligate seeding Ceanothus cuneatus; other species appear to have great longevity. Despite the reduction in C. cuneatus, postfire shrub-seedling recruitment remained strong in these ancient stands, although some seed bank deterioration is suggested by the three-quarters lower seedling recruitment than recorded from mature stands. Total diversity and the abundance of postfire endemic annuals are two other response variables that suggest that these ancient stands are recovering as well as mature stands. The one area of some concern is that non-native species richness and abundance increased in the ancient stands, suggesting that these are more open to alien colonisers. It is concluded that chaparral more than a century old is resilient to such long fire-free periods and fire severity impacts are indistinguishable from those in younger chaparral stands.