Many scientists and managers have an interest in describing the environment following a fire to understand the effects on soil productivity, vegetation growth, and wildlife habitat, but little research has focused on the scientific rationale for classifying the post-fire environment. We developed an empirically-grounded soil post-fire index (PFI) based on available science and ecological thresholds. Using over 50 literature sources, we identified a minimum of five broad categories of post-fire outcomes: (a) unburned, (b) abundant surface organic matter ( > 85% surface organic matter), (c) moderate amount of surface organic matter ( ≥ 40 through 85%), (d) small amounts of surface organic matter ( < 40%), and (e) absence of surface organic matter (no organic matter left). We then subdivided each broad category on the basis of post-fire mineral soil colors providing a more fine-tuned post-fire soil index. We related each PFI category to characteristics such as soil temperature and duration of heating during fire, and physical, chemical, and biological responses. Classifying or describing post-fire soil conditions consistently will improve interpretations of fire effects research and facilitate communication of potential responses or outcomes (e.g., erosion potential) from fires of varying severities.