Where firefighting and wood chopping mean a better life for some youngsters
''Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions'' is the slogan of the California Conservation Corps (CCC) which, amazingly, is attracting thousands of West Coast teen-agers to its ranks.
The story of this insistently do-good governmental organization is told with the inspiring joy of discovery by award-winning producer-director Robert Drew and cameraman-director Sidney Reichman in Fire Season (PBS, Wednesday, 10-11:30 p.m., check local listingsm).
Although Mr. Drew prefers to designate his method cinema verite, implying that he merely sets up his cameras and shoots what is happening, the fact is that ''Fire Season'' is obviously a meticulously planned, skillfully edited videotape that could not have happened without a firm hand to guide its direction. If occasionally there is an air of improvisation about some of the interviews, it is a carefully orchestrated style that is a beautiful counterpoint to its fascinating subject matter. Like most supposed cinema verite documentaries (especially those of Frederick Wiseman), ''Fire Season'' goes on too long and would benefit by cutting some repetitive parts.
But even in its present long form, this tape makes an important contribution not only to independent documentarymakers, but also to our reservoir of knowledge about unemployment among young people and the constructive role these same young people can play in the area of ecology. At the same time it manages to be uncompromising entertainment as well.
''I do not care about you. Your happiness means nothing to me. How I spend the taxpayers' money means something to me,'' CCC director B. T. Collins shouts at his recruits. They boo and laugh good-naturedly, because they sense a real love and commitment beneath that outward bluster.
These youngsters have been gathered together from all levels of California life - mostly from gang-ridden ghettos, but also from affluent but disaffected families. In this 1980s version of the '30s Civilian Conservation Corps, the teenagers are taught to fight fires, improve the land they live on, train for environmental jobs in the future - and even more important, live and work with people of both sexes, all races, and different societal backgrounds. In a way, this new CCC is very much like a universal army experience, with a minimal amount of militarism.
However, that touch of military discipline is there - and this documentary makes no attempt to hide it. It raised the question in this viewer's mind: Could a nationwide organization such as this offer frightening opportunities for a malevolent government to indoctrinate young people in a way that might not be acceptable to the nation as a whole? But then, of course, as it is now organized , a youngster can leave the CCC at any time he wishes.
''Fire Season'' contains extraordinary footage on California firefighting and , perhaps, as the youngsters themselves might complain, a bit too much wood chopping. But the videotape includes ''flash forwards'' and ''flashbacks'' to the habitats of some of the youngsters - to gang fights and unhealthy home environments, constantly contrasting the seemingly wholesome life in the corps and the wasted years on the streets of California.
Requests for information about the new CCC have come in from most states. Several are already preparing to follow suit with CCCs of their own. ''Fire Season'' needs to be seen by legislators and voters contemplating the establishment of a similar organization. As a source of illustrated information, this documentary performs an admirable public service. But I also recommend it as superb, enlightening entertainment.