Abstract Aim The goal of this study was to understand better the role of interannual and interdecadal climatic variation on local pre-EuroAmerican settlement fire regimes in fire-prone Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi Grev. & Balf.) dominated forests in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Location Our study was conducted in a 6000-ha area of contiguous mixed Jeffrey pine-white fir (Abies concolor Gordon & Glend.) forest on the western slope of the Carson Range on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Methods Pre-EuroAmerican settlement fire regimes (i.e. frequency, return interval, extent, season) were reconstructed in eight contiguous watersheds for a 200-year period (1650–1850) from fire scars preserved in the annual growth rings of nineteenth century cut stumps and recently dead pre-settlement Jeffrey pine trees. Superposed epoch analysis (SEA) and correlation analysis were used to examine relationships between tree ring-based reconstructions of the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), Southern Oscillation Index (SOI), Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and pre-EuroAmerican fire regimes in order to assess the influence of drought and equatorial and north Pacific teleconnections on fire occurrence and fire extent. Results For the entire period of record (1650–1850), wet conditions were characteristic of years without fires. In contrast, fire years were associated with drought. Drought intensity also influenced fire extent and the most widespread fires occurred in the driest years. Years with widespread fires were also preceded by wet conditions 3 years before the fire. Widespread fires were also associated with phase changes of the PDO, with the most widespread burns occurring when the phase changed from warm (positive) to cold (negative) conditions. Annual SOI and fire frequency or extent were not associated in our study. At decadal time scales, burning was more widespread during decades that were dryer and characterized by La Niña and negative PDO conditions. Interannual and interdecadal fire–climate relationships were not stable over time. From 1700 to 1775 there was no interannual relationship between drought, PDO, and fire frequency or extent. However, from 1775 to 1850, widespread fires were associated with dry years preceded by wet years. This period also had the strongest association between fire extent and the PDO. In contrast, fire–climate associations at interdecadal time scales were stronger in the earlier period than in the later period. The change from strong interdecadal to strong interannual climate influence was associated with a breakdown in decadal scale constructive relationships between PDO and SOI. Main conclusions Climate strongly influenced pre-settlement pine forest fire regimes in northern Sierra Nevada. Both interannual and interdecadal climatic variation regulated conditions conducive to fire activity, and longer term changes in fire frequency and extent correspond with climate-mediated changes observed in both the northern and southern hemispheres. The sensitivity of fire regimes to shifts in modes of climatic variability suggests that climate was a key regulator of pine forest ecosystem structure and dynamics before EuroAmerican settlement. An understanding of pre-EuroAmerican fire–climate relationships may provide useful insights into how fire activity in contemporary forests may respond to future climatic variation.