The 2019–20 Australian fire season was heralded as emblematic of the catastrophic harm wrought by climate change. Similarly extreme wildfire seasons have occurred across the globe in recent years. Here, we apply a pyrogeographic lens to the recent Australian fires to examine the range of causes, impacts and responses. We find that the extensive area burnt was due to extreme climatic circumstances. However, antecedent hazard reduction burns (prescribed burns with the aim of reducing fuel loads) were effective in reducing fire severity and house loss, but their effectiveness declined under extreme weather conditions. Impacts were disproportionately borne by socially disadvantaged regional communities. Urban populations were also impacted through prolonged smoke exposure. The fires produced large carbon emissions, burnt fire-sensitive ecosystems and exposed large areas to the risk of biodiversity decline by being too frequently burnt in the future. We argue that the rate of change in fire risk delivered by climate change is outstripping the capacity of our ecological and social systems to adapt. A multi-lateral approach is required to mitigate future fire risk, with an emphasis on reducing the vulnerability of people through a reinvigoration of community-level capacity for targeted actions to complement mainstream fire management capacity.