Analyses of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in heathland soils at Wilsons Promontory and on Snake Island show that the effects of fire, including repeated fires, are confined to the surface 2 cm. The uppermost soil in long-unburnt heathlands is rich in these elements and usually has a smaller C:N ratio compared with the soil below. Indices of N and P availability (C:N ratios, concentrations of potentially mineralisable N and extractable inorganic P, phosphatase activity) are similar to those in highly productive eucalypt forests-a finding in conflict with past assessments of nutrient availability in heathlands. Phosphatase activity and concentrations of carbon, nitrogen and potentially mineralisable N were less in soils from repeatedly burnt heathlands than in soils from long unburnt heathlands whereas there was a greater concentration of extractable inorganic P in soils from repeatedly burnt heathlands. The balance between nitrogen input and loss is dependent on fire frequency and present-day management of heathland (and other native plant communities with low nutrient capitals) should recognise that over- or under-use of fire will significantly alter soil nutrient pools and availability and that these changes may alter community species composition and productivity.