We investigated the role of post-fire residual organic matter (ROM) thickness as a driver of community assembly in eastern Newfoundland. We hypothesized that if post-fire community assembly is predominantly controlled by ROM thickness (an abiotic habitat filter), then post-fire species composition and functional traits should correspond to the depth and distribution of ROM. However, if species interactions (biotic filter) are the primary constraints on community assembly, then post-fire species composition and their functional traits should be independent of the depth and distribution of ROM. We tested these predictions in three relatively mature plant communities, Kalmia angustifolia heath, black spruce (Picea mariana)-Kalmia shrub savannah and black spruce forest. Through pre-fire stand reconstruction, we found evidence that the three communities originated from black spruce forest. ROM thickness in heath was almost twice that of shrub savannah and six times more than forest, suggesting a gradient in fire severity. Distribution of ROM corresponded to patterns in vegetation dominance, where thick ROM (>2 cm) filtered out black spruce in favour of Kalmia. ROM thickness was a strong predictor of vegetation composition and function between heath and forest, but this was not found between the shrub savannah and forest. We attribute this to species interactions and allelopathy, which may have become important when ROM thickness was suitable for both seed (black spruce) and vegetative (Kalmia) regenerating species. Thus, priority effects or ''who came first'' may have lead to shrub savannah formation when ROM thickness was similar to 2 cm. We conclude that abiotic habitat filtering of thick ROM (>2 cm) on (primarily) species' regeneration traits was the primary driver of community divergence from forest to heath and shrub savannah. © Springer-Verlag 2010.