Increasing area burned across western North America raises questions about the precedence and magnitude of changes in fire activity, relative to the historical range of variability (HRV) that ecosystems experienced over recent centuries and millennia. Paleoecological records of past fire occurrence provide context for contemporary changes in ecosystems characterized by infrequent, high-severity fire regimes. Here we present a network of 12 fire-history records derived from macroscopic charcoal preserved in sediments of small subalpine lakes within a c. 10 000 km2 landscape in the U.S. northern Rocky Mountains (Northern Rockies). We used this network to characterize landscape-scale burning over the past 2500 yr, and to evaluate the precedence of widespread regional burning experienced in the early 20th and 21st centuries. We further compare the Northern Rockies fire history to a previously published network of fire-history records in the Southern Rockies. In Northern Rockies subalpine forests, widespread fire activity was strongly linked to seasonal climate conditions, in contemporary, historical, and paleo records. The average estimated fire rotation period (FRP) over the past 2500 yr was 164 yr (HRV: 127–225 yr), while the contemporary FRP from 1900 to 2021 CE was 215 yr. Thus, extensive regional burning in the early 20th century (e.g. 1910 CE) and in recent decades remains within the HRV of recent millennia. Results from the Northern Rockies contrast with the Southern Rockies, which burned with less frequency on average over the past 2500 yr, and where 21st-century burning has exceeded the HRV. Our results support expectations that Northern Rockies fire activity will continue to increase with climatic warming, surpassing historical burning if more than one exceptional fire year akin to 1910 occurs within the next several decades. The ecological consequences of climatic warming in subalpine forests will depend, in large part, on the magnitude of fire-regime changes relative to the past.