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The newest member of the American Association of Retired Persons isn't burned out yet and isn't quitting. What a relief! Just the thought of his calling it a day would be unbearable.

This week as Smokey Bear marked his 50th birthday with honorary membership in the AARP, his message that "Only YOU can prevent forest fires" remains as timely as ever - though he and it have accomplished much the past half-century.The Forest Service credits the nation's No. 1 fire prevention symbol with more than halving the number of wildfires caused by humans each year. But Smokey still needs to work hard at his job. So do his human helpers.

That's because fires still consume about 5 million acres of forest and range a year - an area about the size of Rhode Island. Just the cost of fighting such blazes consumes millions of dollars that otherwise could be spent on schools, hospitals and help for the poor and homeless.

But the biggest part of the cost is measured not in dollars but in lost timber that deprives wildlife of shelter and strips the ecosystem of its best natural defense against flooding: healthy trees, grasses and brush whose roots trap rainwater and hold the soil together. Without such protection, unhampered runoff erodes the land, triggers mudslides and fouls rivers and reservoirs with mud and sediment.

Keep at it, Smokey. May you be around for at least another 50 years.