We develop a model of fault strength loss resulting from phase change at asperity contacts due to flash heating that considers a distribution of contact sizes and nonsteady state evolution of fault strength with displacement. Laboratory faulting experiments conducted at high sliding velocities, which show dramatic strength reduction below the threshold for bulk melting, are well fit by the model. The predicted slip speed for the onset of weakening is in the range of 0.05 to 2 m/s, qualitatively consistent with the limited published observations. For this model, earthquake stress drops and effective shear fracture energy should be linearly pressure-dependent, whereas the onset speed may be pressure-independent or weakly pressure-dependent. On the basis of the theory, flash weakening is expected to produce large dynamic stress drops, small effective shear fracture energy, and undershoot. Estimates of the threshold slip speed, stress drop, and fracture energy are uncertain due to poor knowledge of the average ontact dimension, shear zone thickness and gouge particle size at seismogenic depths. Copyright 2008 by the American Geophysical Union.