A two temperature finite difference model has been developed and is used to describe the response of materials under ultrafast femtosecond laser pulses in the energy regime where melting and vaporization can occur. In applying this model to silicon it is observed that, for 800 nm light, laser pulse intensities that are just sufficient to achieve threshold for vaporization are also at the level of optical electric field strength where electron avalanche breakdown at the surface of the material can occur. For sub-picosecond pulses the physical response of the material is associated with a strongly temperature dependent coupling coefficient connecting electron and phonon thermal distributions. The results of these analyses demonstrate that a very thin near solid density plasma, caused by avalanche ionization, is responsible for the surface heating and subsequent thermodynamic response of the material. This interpretation is consistent throughout the pulse duration range from 80 femtoseconds to 0.2 nanoseconds. The proposed mechanism for absorption, at the near infra-red wavelength being used here, is very different from the types of mechanisms usually considered for nanosecond laser heating of semiconductors. Surface damage threshold is determined by atomic force microscopy and the threshold for plasma optical emission by photomultiplier detection . Melt deths are probed with SIMS impurity diffusion profiles and high resolution cross sectional TEM.