Context. Wildfire is a major driver of the structure and function of mallee eucalypt- and spinifex-dominated landscapes. Understanding how fire influences the distribution of biota in these fire-prone environments is essential for effective ecological and conservation-based management. Aims. We aimed to (1) determine the effects of an extensive wildfire (118 000 ha) on a small mammal community in the mallee shrublands of semiarid Australia and (2) assess the hypothesis that the fire-response patterns of small mammals can be predicted by their life-history characteristics. Methods. Small-mammal surveys were undertaken concurrently at 26 sites: once before the fire and on four occasions following the fire (including 14 sites that remained unburnt). We documented changes in small-mammal occurrence before and after the fire, and compared burnt and unburnt sites. In addition, key components of vegetation structure were assessed at each site. Key results. Wildfire had a strong influence on vegetation structure and on the occurrence of small mammals. The mallee ningaui, Ningaui yvonneae, a dasyurid marsupial, showed a marked decline in the immediate post-fire environment, corresponding with a reduction in hummock-grass cover in recently burnt vegetation. Species richness of native small mammals was positively associated with unburnt vegetation, although some species showed no clear response to wildfire. Conclusions. Our results are consistent with the contention that mammal responses to fire are associated with their known life-history traits. The species most strongly affected by wildfire, N. yvonneae, has the most specific habitat requirements and restricted life history of the small mammals in the study area. The only species positively associated with recently burnt vegetation, the introduced house mouse, Mus domesticus, has a flexible life history and non-specialised resource requirements. Implications. Maintaining sources for recolonisation after large-scale wildfires will be vital to the conservation of native small mammals in mallee ecosystems.