This research explores community perceptions of wildland fire risk in two fire-prone West Virginia counties. We employed community field theory and key informant interviews to observe how the local context, including sociocultural heritage, influenced risk perceptions, and meanings of fire. In contrast with expert risk assessments, residents did not view fire as a probability of harm. Residents' familiarity with local ecology was important in attenuating risk perceptions. In addition, informants alluded to wildfire as a latent symbol of resentment toward social effects of resource dependency. Thus, the symbolic meaning of fire revealed a cultural adaptation used to communicate inequitable power relations in these resource-dependent communities. Our approach helps explain what some experts argue as the inability of communities to 'accurately' assess and mitigate risk. Implications of the research suggest risk managers and others need to integrate cultural analysis, as well as local residents, into their community risk mitigation programs.