The important role of fire in regulating vegetation community composition and contributions to emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols make it a critical component of dynamic global vegetation models and Earth system models. Over 2 decades of development, a wide variety of model structures and mechanisms have been designed and incorporated into global fire models, which have been linked to different vegetation models. However, there has not yet been a systematic examination of how these different strategies contribute to model performance. Here we describe the structure of the first phase of the Fire Model Intercomparison Project (FireMIP), which for the first time seeks to systematically compare a number of models. By combining a standardized set of input data and model experiments with a rigorous comparison of model outputs to each other and to observations, we will improve the understanding of what drives vegetation fire, how it can best be simulated, and what new or improved observational data could allow better constraints on model behavior. In this paper, we introduce the fire models used in the first phase of FireMIP, the simulation protocols applied, and the benchmarking system used to evaluate the models. We have also created supplementary tables that describe, in thorough mathematical detail, the structure of each model.