Abstract Temperatures that significantly increase seed germination of some tropical legumes (i.e. 80–100°C) were documented in the topsoil during the passage of early (May) and late (October) dry season fires in a tropical eucalypt savanna of north-eastern Australia. Elevated temperatures penetrated at least 30 mm into the soil during the higher-intensity, late dry season fires, but were only detected at 10 mm during the early dry season fires. The depth from which germination of two native legume forbs Galactia tenuiflora and Indigofera hirsuta occurred was positively related to the temperature elevation in the topsoil and was greater after late compared with early dry season fires. A broader range in germination depth, resulting in higher seedling densities, was recorded for I hirsuta after late dry season fires. These results suggest that seedling emergence of native leguminous forbs is likely to occur at a greater density after late rather than early dry season fires in tropical eucalypt savannas of north-eastern Australia. Therefore, the season of burning, as a result of its relationship to fire intensity, can influence species composition through its effect on seed germination.