Global change has resulted in chronic shifts in fire regimes. Variability in the sensitivity of tree communities to multi-decadal changes in fire regimes is critical to anticipating shifts in ecosystem structure and function, yet remains poorly understood. Here, we address the overall effects of fire on tree communities and the factors controlling their sensitivity in 29 sites that experienced multi-decadal alterations in fire frequencies in savanna and forest ecosystems across tropical and temperate regions. Fire had a strong overall effect on tree communities, with an average fire frequency (one fire every three years) reducing stem density by 48% and basal area by 53% after 50 years, relative to unburned plots. The largest changes occurred in savanna ecosystems and in sites with strong wet seasons or strong dry seasons, pointing to fire characteristics and species composition as important. Analyses of functional traits highlighted the impact of fire-driven changes in soil nutrients because frequent burning favoured trees with low biomass nitrogen and phosphorus content, and with more efficient nitrogen acquisition through ectomycorrhizal symbioses. Taken together, the response of trees to altered fire frequencies depends both on climatic and vegetation determinants of fire behaviour and tree growth, and the coupling between fire-driven nutrient losses and plant traits.