Evergreen chaparral and semideciduous sage scrub shrublands were studied for five years after fires in order to evaluate hypothesized determinants of postfire recovery and succession. Residual species present in the immediate postfire environment dominated early succession. By the fifth year postfire, roughly half of the species were colonizers not present in the first year, but they comprised only 7-14% cover. Successional changes were evaluated in the context of four hypotheses: (1) event-dependent, (2) fire interval, (3) self-regulatory, and (4) environmental filter hypotheses. Characteristics specific to the fire event, for example, fire severity and annual fluctuations in precipitation, were important determinants of patterns of change in cover and density, supporting the "event-dependent" hypothesis. The "fire interval" hypothesis is also supported, primarily through the impact of short intervals on reproductive failure in obligate seeding shrubs and the impact of long intervals on fuel accumulation and resultant fire severity. Successional changes in woody cover were correlated with decreases in herb cover, indicating support for "self-regulatory" effects. Across this landscape there were strong "environmental filter" effects that resulted in complex patterns of postfire recovery and succession between coastal and interior associations of both vegetation types. Of relevance to fire managers is the finding that postfire recovery patterns are substantially slower in the interior sage scrub formations, and thus require different management strategies than coastal formations. Also, in sage scrub (but not chaparral), prefire stand age is positively correlated with fire severity, and negatively correlated with postfire cover. Differential responses to fire severity suggest that landscapes with combinations of high and low severity may lead to enhanced biodiversity. Predicting postfire management needs is complicated by the fact that vegetation recovery is significantly controlled by patterns of precipitation. ?? 2005 by the Ecological Society of America.