Species are often controlled by biotic factors such as competition at the warm edge of their distribution range. Disturbances at the treeline, disrupting competitive dominance, may thus enable alpine species to utilize lower altitudes. We searched for evidence for range expansion in grazed, fire‐managed Ethiopian subalpine Erica heathlands across a 25‐year chronosequence. We examined vascular plant composition in 48 plots (5 × 5 m) across an altitudinal range of 3,465-3,711 m.a.s.l. and analyzed how community composition changed in relation to increasing competition over time (using a Shade index based on Erica shrub height and cover) and altitude. Species' habitats and altitudinal ranges were derived from literature. Time since fire explained more variation (r2 = .41) in species composition than altitude did (r2 = .32) in an NMDS analysis. Community‐weighted altitudinal optima for species in a plot decreased strongly with increasing shade (GLM, Standardized Regression Coefficient SRC = -.41, p = .003), but increased only weakly with altitude (SRC = .26, p = .054). In other words, young stands were dominated by species with higher altitudinal optima than old stands. Forest species richness increased with Log Shade index (SRC = .12, p = .008), but was unaffected by altitude (SRC = -.07, p = .13). However, richness of alpine and heathland species was not highest in plots with lowest Shade index, but displayed a unimodal pattern with an initial increase, followed by a decrease when shading increased (altitude was not significant). Our results indicate that disturbance from the traditional patch burning increases the available habitat for less competitive high‐altitude plants and prevents tree line ascent. Therefore, maintaining, but regulating, the traditional land use increases the Afro‐alpine flora's resilience to global warming. However, this system is threatened by a new REDD+ program attempting to increase carbon storage via fire suppression. This study highlights the importance of understanding traditional management regimes for biodiversity conservation in cultural landscapes in an era of global change.