Understanding the factors that influence vegetation responses to disturbance is important because vegetation is the foundation of food resources, wildlife habitat, and ecosystem properties and processes. We integrated vegetation cover data derived from field plots and remotely sensed Landsat images in two focal areas over a 37‐yr period (1979–2016) to investigate how historical changes to community composition influence contemporary responses of vegetation to fire in sagebrush ecosystems in the Great Basin. Our objectives were (1) to quantify the magnitude and direction of change in the cover of native and exotic plant functional groups in relation to their exposure to fire; (2) to relate plant community changes to their historical composition, exposure to fire, and environmental conditions; and (3) to test for consistency of trends revealed by vegetation cover data derived from field plots and Landsat images. Historical (1979–1981) field data originated from 298 locations, Landsat‐derived data and contemporary (2011–2016) field data originated from 448 locations, and an expanded set of locations were included in some analyses of Landsat‐derived data. We found that areas burned by fire since the 1980s had higher annual herbaceous cover than unburned areas both historically and contemporarily. Models revealed a significant interaction between historical community composition and exposure to fire, which suggests that plots with historically high herbaceous cover were more susceptible to burning. Trends revealed by field and Landsat‐derived cover data were only partially consistent, potentially due in part to methods used to predict cover values from Landsat images, and the time period over which each data set was collected. Our results suggest that burned areas historically occupied by sagebrush‐dominated plant communities may have been invaded by exotic annuals prior to burning, possibly because of prior land uses, and after burning, have now transitioned to a persistent herbaceous‐dominated state. This type of state transition has important consequences for forage quality, wildlife habitat, soil nutrients, and future disturbances, such as drought and wildfire.