Acute changes in ecological disturbance regimes can have major consequences for ecosystems and biota, including humans, living within them. Human suppression of fire in the western United States over the last century has caused notable changes to many ecosystems, especially in lower elevation, semiarid forest types dominated historically by fire tolerant taxa like Pinus and Quercus. Recent increases in fire activity in western US forests have highlighted the need for restoration of ecological structure and function, but management targets for restoration in different forest types remain uncertain. Working in the forests of eastern California, we evaluated the direction and magnitude of change in burned area and fire severity between the period prior to Euro-American settlement (∼1500–1850) and the “modern” period (1984–2009). We compared total annual area burned; proportional area burned at low-moderate severity and high severity; and annual area burned at low-moderate severity and high severity between the two time periods in seven forest types. We also examined modern trends in fire area and severity. We found that modern rates of burning are far below presettlement levels for all forest types. However, there were major differences between low to middle elevation forests and high elevation forests regarding the components of this departure. Low and middle elevation forests are currently burning at much higher severities than during the presettlement period, and the departure in fire area is overwhelmingly expressed in the low to moderate severity categories; in these forest types, mean annual area of high severity fire is not notably different between the modern and presettlement periods. In higher elevation forests on the other hand, the modern departure in fire area is expressed equally across fire severity categories. Our results underline the critical need for forest and fire restoration in the study area, especially in low and middle elevation forests adapted to frequent, low severity fire. Expanded management of naturally ignited fires for resource benefit is clearly needed, but in many parts of our study area, strategic reduction of forest fuels will likely be necessary before large-scale restoration of fire becomes ecologically, politically, and financially feasible.