The influence of plant traits on forest fire behaviour has evolutionary, ecological and management implications, but is poorly understood and frequently discounted. We use a process model to quantify that influence and provide validation in a diverse range of eucalypt forests burnt under varying conditions. Measured height of consumption was compared to heights predicted using a surface fuel fire behaviour model, then key aspects of our model were sequentially added to this with and without species-specific information. Our fully specified model had a mean absolute error 3.8 times smaller than the otherwise identical surface fuel model (p < 0.01), and correctly predicted the height of larger (≥1 m) flames 12 times more often (p < 0.001). We conclude that the primary endogenous drivers of fire severity are the species of plants present rather than the surface fuel load, and demonstrate the accuracy and versatility of the model for quantifying this.