The impacts of climatic changes on forests may appear gradually on time scales of years to centuries due to the long generation times of trees. Consequently, current forest extent may not reflect current climatic patterns. In contrast with these lagged responses, abrupt transitions in forests under climate change may occur in environments where alternative vegetation states are influenced by disturbances, such as fire. The Klamath forest landscape (northern California and southwest Oregon, USA) is currently dominated by high biomass, biodiverse temperate coniferous forests, but climate change could disrupt the mechanisms promoting forest stability (e.g. growth, regeneration and fire tolerance). Using a landscape simulation model, we estimate that about one-third of the Klamath forest landscape (500,000 ha) could transition from conifer-dominated forest to shrub/hardwood chaparral, triggered by increased fire activity coupled with lower post-fire conifer establishment. Such shifts were widespread under the warmer climate change scenarios (RCP 8.5) but were surprisingly prevalent under the climate of 1949-2010, reflecting the joint influences of recent warming trends and the legacy of fire suppression that may have enhanced conifer dominance. Our results demonstrate that major forest ecosystem shifts should be expected when climate change disrupts key stabilizing feedbacks that maintain the dominance of long-lived, slowly regenerating trees.