Recent, large fires in the western United States have rekindled debates about fire management and the role of natural fire regimes in the resilience of terrestrial ecosystems. This real-world experience parallels debates involving abstract models of forest fires, a central metaphor in complex systems theory. Both real and modeled fire-prone landscapes exhibit roughly power law statistics in fire size versus frequency. Here, we examine historical fire catalogs and a detailed fire simulation model; both are in agreement with a highly optimized tolerance model. Highly optimized tolerance suggests robustness tradeoffs underlie resilience in different fire-prone ecosystems. Understanding these mechanisms may provide new insights into the structure of ecological systems and be key in evaluating fire management strategies and sensitivities to climate change.