The area burned in the North American boreal forest is controlled by the frequency of mid-tropospheric blocking highs that cause rapid fuel drying. Climate controls the area burned through changing the dynamics of large-scale teleconnection patterns (Pacific Decadal Oscillation/El Nino Southern Oscillation and Arctic Oscillation, PDO/ENSO and AO) that control the frequency of blocking highs over the continent at different time scales. Changes in these teleconnections may be caused by the current global warming. Thus, an increase in temperature alone need not be associated with an increase in area burned in the North American boreal forest. Since the end of the Little Ice Age, the climate has been unusually moist and variable: large fire years have occurred in unusual years, fire frequency has decreased and fire-climate relationships have occurred at interannual to decadal time scales. Prolonged and severe droughts were common in the past and were partly associated with changes in the PDO/ENSO system. Under these conditions, large fire years become common, fire frequency increases and fire-climate relationships occur at decadal to centennial time scales. A suggested return to the drier climate regimes of the past would imply major changes in the temporal dynamics of fire-climate relationships and in area burned, a reduction in the mean age of the forest, and changes in species composition of the North American boreal forest. © 2007 The Royal Society.