No details were immediately available about the death in San Diego County, but four firefighters and four other people were injured and taken to hospitals, said Roxanne Provaznik, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry.
The fire was among at least eight blazes stretching from north of Los Angeles to San Diego, as hot weather and strong winds marked the height of the traditional wildfire season.
The fire responsible for the death and eight injuries burned about 2,500 acres near a highway. A second charred about 3,000 acres in northern San Diego County and was threatening homes near Witch Creek, Provaznik said.
In Malibu, firefighters are battling a blaze so fast, it doubled in size in an hour, so voracious it's consuming everything in its path - tinder-dry mountainsides, million dollar houses, reports CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker.
About 500 firefighters worked to protect about 200 Malibu homes in several upscale communities nestled in the hills, officials said.
As erratic as it is dangerous, this Malibu fire is a wily foe. Traveling on wind-borne embers, it's hop-scotching from hill to house, from here to there on its march to the sea, forcing the closure of famed Pacific Coast Highway, adds Whitaker. Firefighters are besieged.
The blaze, which started in Malibu Canyon, had charred at least 1,000 acres and destroyed a church and several homes, one of them a landmark castle.
TV footage showed several buildings in flames in the area, including clusters of beach-side homes.
"This fire is zero percent contained, which means we're at the mercy of the wind," acting Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich said.
In all, three homes and two commercial buildings had been confirmed lost throughout the Malibu area, Freeman said. Nine more homes were damaged, he said.
The fire is expected to burn for another two to three days, he said. Until the blaze is extinguished, "there will literally be thousands of homes that will be threatened at one time or another," he said.
Fire crews early Sunday found downed power lines, which may have started the fire, Capt. Mike Brown said.
Late Sunday morning, palm trees bent in half and embers were carried through the air as winds gusted to 60 to 65 mph. Thick smoke obscured the sun.
Susan Nuttall sat in her black Mercedes in a cul-de-sac just off the Pacific Coast Highway, saying she had fled her condo just below Pepperdine University.
"We're all scared to death, and we have nowhere to go," said Nuttall, 51, still wearing a bathrobe and holding her Chihuahua.
Flames consumed the landmark Castle Kashan, a stately fortress-like home with turrets and arched windows, as about a dozen residents watched from across a street. Chunks of brick fell from the exterior of the burning building overlooking the coast.
Erratic wind gusts hampered efforts to drop water from aircraft and pushed flames toward HRL Laboratories, a research and engineering facility jointly owned by Boeing Co. and General Motors Corp. about a mile north of Pepperdine. One outbuilding caught fire, Boeing spokeswoman Diana Ball said.
Flames engulfed Malibu Presbyterian Church, which had been evacuated, said youth pastor Eric Smith. "That's the really good news, that everyone's out and safe," Smith said.
Faculty and staff at the 830-acre Pepperdine campus had been urged to evacuate in the morning and students were instructed to gather in the school's cafeteria and basketball arena.
But by early afternoon, the campus was "secure," Freeman said. Flames were no longer visible in the hills around the school and power to the campus had been restored, Pepperdine spokesman Jerry Derloshon said.
About 200 homes had been evacuated in the communities of Malibu Colony, Puerco Canyon, Monte Nido and Sweetwater Canyon, Brown said.
To the north, fire officials were focused on protecting Piru, a Ventura County town of 1,200 people across a small lake from the blaze. A condor preserve was also potentially threatened.
"There could be homes threatened by the end of the day Sunday if the fire continues to push to the south and southwest," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea told KNX radio.
Wildfires had been widely expected in Southern California during the weekend as the Santa Ana winds made their arrival from the desert.
Malibu, home to about 13,000 people, including many celebrities, stretches along 27 miles of Pacific coastline. Last January, a wildfire driven by Santa Ana winds destroyed the home of actress Suzanne Somers and three other multimillion-dollar residences.
The community also is home to about 25 rehabilitation facilities, including Promises Residential Treatment Center, whose guests have included Britney Spears, Ben Affleck, Charlie Sheen, Diana Ross and Matthew Perry.