Understory fires represent an accelerating threat to Amazonian tropical forests and can, during drought, affect larger areas than deforestation itself. These fires kill trees at rates varying from < 10 to c. 90% depending on fire intensity, forest disturbance history and tree functional traits. Here, we examine variation in bark thickness across the Amazon. Bark can protect trees from fires, but it is often assumed to be consistently thin across tropical forests. Here, we show that investment in bark varies, with thicker bark in dry forests and thinner in wetter forests. We also show that thinner bark translated into higher fire-driven tree mortality in wetter forests, with between 0.67 and 5.86 gigatonnes CO2 lost in Amazon understory fires between 2001 and 2010. Trait-enabled global vegetation models that explicitly include variation in bark thickness are likely to improve the predictions of fire effects on carbon cycling in tropical forests.