Over the past several decades, high-resolution sediment-charcoal records have been increasingly used to reconstruct local fire history. Data analysis methods usually involve a decomposition that detrends a charcoal series and then applies a threshold value to isolate individual peaks, which are interpreted as fire episodes. Despite the proliferation of these studies, methods have evolved largely in the absence of a thorough statistical framework. We describe eight alternative decomposition models (four detrending methods used with two threshold-determination methods) and evaluate their sensitivity to a set of known parameters integrated into simulated charcoal records. Results indicate that the combination of a globally defined threshold with specific detrending methods can produce strongly biased results, depending on whether or not variance in a charcoal record is stationary through time. These biases are largely eliminated by using a locally defined threshold, which adapts to changes in variability throughout a charcoal record. Applying the alternative decomposition methods on three previously published charcoal records largely supports our conclusions from simulated records. We also present a minimum-count test for empirical records, which reduces the likelihood of false positives when charcoal counts are low. We conclude by discussing how to evaluate when peak detection methods are warranted with a given sediment-charcoal record.