Postfire recovery of fire-adapted forests remains uncertain as climate and fire regimes continue to change. Areas of poor postfire tree regeneration following late-20th-century fires may reveal characteristics associated with increased vulnerability to forest decline. However, sufficient time must have elapsed and pre- and postfire forest cover must be compared to distinguish areas that have not recovered. We used remotely sensed data and the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) to detect areas of poor forest recovery across > 250,000 ha of area burned as stand-replacing fire 30 years after the 1988 Yellowstone fires. We asked three questions: (1) What is the extent and configuration of sparse and reduced forest recovery? (2) How do vegetation characteristics compare between areas of sparse and reduced recovery vs. recovered forest? (3) What environmental characteristics explain the distribution and patch size of sparse and reduced recovery? We related postfire (2013-14) NDVI to field-measured stem density to establish an NDVI threshold of sparse tree regeneration, and we contrasted pre- (1986-87) and postfire (2018-19) NDVI as a proxy for pre- and postfire forest cover. Sparse and reduced forest recovery occupied ∼ 41,000 ha across the burned area, about half of which was ≥ 150 m from ex situ seed sources. Patches of poor recovery were generally large, with ∼ 13,400 ha in patches ≥ 50 ha and an area-weighted mean patch size of 97 ha. Vegetation was short (<2 m) in areas of sparse and reduced recovery and non-evergreen biomass was three times greater than in recovered forest. Sparse and reduced recovery was more likely at high elevations, on steep slopes, and far from ex situ seed sources, and patches were larger at high elevations and far from seed sources. It took 20 years for sparse and reduced recovery to be distinguishable from recovered forest using NDVI, suggesting a time lag before remotely sensed data can detect alternative pathways of postfire forest recovery. Now, 30 years after the 1988 fires, ∼16 % of the forest burned as stand-replacing fire has failed to recover. The extent and configuration of these areas suggest some may persist as sparse or non-forest for the foreseeable future, with implications for biodiversity and ecosystem processes.