More than a half-dozen wildfires fuelled by strong winds spread across Southern California on Sunday, killing one person and destroying several homes.

No further details have been disclosed 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.

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Firefighters battle a blaze at the Malibu Presbyterian Church on Sunday after a wildfire driven by powerful Santa Ana winds threatened California's Malibu Hills. ((Mike Meadows/Associated Press))

The blaze started late Saturday, driven bystrong winds and dry conditions. By Sunday morning, the fire had burned more than 200 hectaresin Ventura County and had destroyed five structures, includinga church, a castleand several homes in celebrity-laden Malibu, officials said.

Wildfires had beenexpected in Southern Californiaover the weekend as hot weather andstrong Santa Ana winds marked the height of traditional wildfire season after one of the driest years on record.

About 500 firefighters worked to protect Pepperdine University and some 200 homes in the up-market Malibu Crest and Serra Retreat neighbourhoods, Los Angeles County Fire Department officials said.

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A fire helicopter drops water over beach homes where flames threatened a university and forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes on Sunday in Malibu. ((Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press))

Faculty and staff at the 830-acre Pepperdine campus were moved out and students were told to assemble in the campus basketball arena.

Meanwhile, the flames jumped the Pacific Coast Highway, closing the popular road and setting fire to cars and trees in shopping centre parking lots along the route.

Palm trees were bent in half and embers were carried through the air as wind gusted more than 100 km/h and thick smoke obscured the sun.

Worse, water-dropping planes were having trouble hitting the fire because the wind was blowing the water before it could reach the ground, the fire department said.

With files from the Associated Press