Altered fuels and climate change are transforming fire regimes in many of Earth's biomes. Postfire reassembly of vegetation - paramount to C storage and biodiversity conservation - frequently remains unpredictable and complicated by rapid global change. Using a unique data set of pre and long-term postfire data, combined with long-term data from nearby unburned areas, we examined 10 years of understory vegetation assembly after the 2002 Hayman Fire. This fire was the largest wildfire in recorded history in Colorado, USA. Resistance (initial postfire deviance from prefire condition) and resilience (return to prefire condition) declined with increasing fire severity. However, via both resistance and resilience, 'legacy' species of the prefire community constituted >75% of total plant cover within 3 years even in severely burned areas. Perseverance of legacy species, coupled with new colonizers, created a persistent increase in community species richness and cover over prefire levels. This was driven by a first-year increase (maintained over time) in forbs with short life spans; a 2-3-year delayed surge in long-lived forbs; and a consistent increase in graminoids through the 10th postfire year. Burning increased exotic plant invasion relative to prefire and unburned areas, but burned communities always were >89% native. This study informs debate in the literature regarding whether these increasingly large fires are 'ecological catastrophes.' Landscape-scale severe burning was catastrophic from a tree overstory perspective, but from an understory perspective, burning promoted rich and productive native understories, despite the entire 10-year postfire period receiving below-average precipitation.