Fire regimes in savannas and forests are changing over much of the world. Anticipating the impact of these changes requires understanding how plants are adapted to fire. In this study, we test whether fire imposes a broad selective force on a key fire-tolerance trait, bark thickness, across 572 tree species distributed worldwide. We show that investment in thick bark is a pervasive adaptation in frequently burned areas across savannas and forests in both temperate and tropical regions where surface fires occur. Geographic variability in bark thickness is largely explained by annual burned area and precipitation seasonality. Combining environmental and species distribution data allowed us to assess vulnerability to future climate and fire conditions: tropical rainforests are especially vulnerable, whereas seasonal forests and savannas are more robust. The strong link between fire and bark thickness provides an avenue for assessing the vulnerability of tree communities to fire and demands inclusion in global models.