Interannual climate variations have been important drivers of wildfire occurrence in ponderosa pine forests across western North America for at least 400 years, but at finer scales of mountain ranges and landscapes human land uses sometimes over-rode climate influences. We reconstruct and analyse effects of high human population densities in forests of the Jemez Mountains, New Mexico from ca 1300 CE to Present. Prior to the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, human land uses reduced the occurrence of widespread fires while simultaneously adding more ignitions resulting in many small-extent fires. During the 18th and 19th centuries, wet/dry oscillations and their effects on fuels dynamics controlled widespread fire occurrence. In the late 19th century, intensive livestock grazing disrupted fuels continuity and fire spread and then active fire suppression maintained the absence of widespread surface fires during most of the 20th century. The abundance and continuity of fuels is the most important controlling variable in fire regimes of these semi-arid forests. Reduction of widespread fires owing to reduction of fuel continuity emerges as a hallmark of extensive human impacts on past forests and fire regimes. This article is part of the themed issue 'The interaction of fire and mankind'. © 2016 The Author(s). Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.